Sacred Cow Saturday: Operation Ivy – “Energy”

Sacred Cow Saturday: Operation Ivy – “Energy”

Punk rock has been around long enough  to hold within its musical boundaries a slew of albums considered both classic and essential. We here at Dying Scene love and appreciate these classic albums, but every once and a while we have the urge to challenge what the community has deemed sacred. Every other Saturday, two Dying Scene writers will square off head-to-head and either attack or defend one of these so-called classics. Up for slaughter today is Operation Ivy‘s “Energy.” Does the 1989 classic hold up today? You be the judge. Jason Stone will be defending and Tim Ryan will be attacking.

Let the battle begin!

The Defense

All I know is that I don’t know nothing. And that’s fine” – Jesse Michaels, “Knowledge”

It’s been said in certain places (like comment sections on music news websites) that there’s no deeper meaning to punk rock; that the greatness of punk lies in the fact that it’s made by people banging on drums, strumming guitar strings and singing nonsense. I will grant to those individuals that the lack of musical elitism is part of what makes punk approachable and attainable to younger listeners in their respective basements and garages, such a view is incredibly short-sighted and does more to discredit the genre than any Fall Out Boy album ever could. While there is undoubtedly a “just some dudes with guitars” quality to some of the tried-and-true, rank-and-file in the scene (and that’s totally fine, by the way), it is travesty to deny that some of the best, most transcendent bands were creating something important. And the short-lived Bay Area four-piece known as Operation Ivy were nothing if not important.

Taking an open-minded look back at Operation Ivy’s Energy, I must admit, has been more difficult than I had initially imagined. For the first time in a half-dozen or so posts for this Sacred Cow Saturday series, I found myself growing more than a little bit intimidated…and I’m doing the defense! Dookie proved easy to defend because of its rightful place as the penultimate release of the mid-90s punk movement. Double Nickels on the Dime and Zen Arcade were approachable because they are classics from another era that prove, at the very least, to be an interesting music history lesson. But EnergyEnergy is different. Energy was important in a different way, ground-breaking in such a rarified way that it seems to have achieved almost mythical qualities at this point. And yet, Energy has also found itself in the curious position of being overlooked on the short list of “Best Punk Albums” by far too many for far too long.

The 1989 release (and 1991 rerelease) of Energy is looked upon in some quarters as the moment that truly spawned the 1990s California punk movement, though this label has unquestionably been applied more in retrospect than at the time.  If Dookie and Let’s Go and Smash were the collective powder keg whose explosion unleashed punk rock on the masses in 1994, Energy was the slow-burning wick. So slow-burning, of course, that the members of Operation Ivy had moved on to greener (or at least other) pastures by the time the movement truly launched. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it was the kind of lightening in a bottle that could really only be captured once, and that an attempt at a sophomore album would have tarnished the legacy of all that was right about Energy (revisionist history, I know).

But I guess we’re here to talk about the legacy itself, and why Energy is deserving of lofty praise. Arguably the first so-called ska-core album, Energy has a style that is uniquely its own. Operation Ivy perfected an energetic form of street punk fused with an upbeat-yet-striped-down form of Third Wave ska.  From the introductory notes of Energy’s seminal opening track, “Knowledge,”the lyrical content presents as vital, tackling societal woes like racism, classism, and the pressures of ‘growing up’ in a manner that displays wisdom and insight at a level light years beyond what could reasonably be expected from a group of twenty-year-olds.  The sound was raw yet well-crafted; Tim Armstrong’s (then known only as Lint) guitar playing and lead vocal turn on “Bad Town” were rough around the edges in a way that was endearing at the time (and has grown monotonous in more recent years). Frontman Jesse Michaels’ delivery was aggressive and impassioned in a way that belied his being barely twenty at the time the album was written and recorded.

What makes Energy truly an important album is that, theoretically considered a political band, Operation Ivy’s punk spirit was less about fucking the system and raging against the machine than it was about raising social consciousness and encouraging the elevation of all levels of society. It was about realizing that fighting and warring and hating each other would only make problems worse, not better, and that we needed to reach a sort of mutual understanding in order to truly allow everyone to do better. If only we’d listened…

The Attack

Energyis the only album by pivotal ska-punk group Operation Ivy. Release in 1989, the album was pivotal in popularizing 90s ska punk, and even helping to reignite a mainstream interest in punk by inspiring countless skate punk bands coming out of the band’s California scene.

All of the hallmarks of ska-punk are here; rapid fire vocal melodies, more laid back numbers, plenty of yelled vocals. Obviously, this band has influenced countless modern ska punk acts.

However, as influential it might have been,Energynever displays a level of talent above that of your friends who started a ska band in their garage. The songs are amateurish at best, unlistenable at worst, and cartoonishly goofy considering the band’s eye roll inducing choice of cover song.

While certainly there are a few redeeming qualities, and no one can doubt the influence Operation Ivy had, is it fair to say that Energy deserves to be called a classic album? Well, does the cheesy cover of pop-song-flavor-of-the-month short set your friends do qualify as classic?

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