nation of ulysses


Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Nation of Ulysses – “Diptheria” from 13 Point Program to Destroy America (1991 Dischord)


In 1991 I was 13 years old and had no clue about Nation of Ulysses, though perhaps I should have, since apparently their frontman/cult figure, Ian Svenonius was named Sassy magazine’s “Sassiest Boy in America” that year, and let’s be real, my sister had a subscription that I often also read for some reason. I came to NOU and much of Svenonius’ work much later, and while I kind of knew which came first, I guess I didn’t fully appreciate that this came out in 1991. In fact, I listened to this song many, many times in anticipation of writing about it, but it wasn’t until just now that I realized that this song came out in 1991, and just how groundbreaking Nation of Ulysses’ sound must have been at that time. I’m a little floored by it.

Because to be honest, while I’ve always appreciated Svenonius’ revolutionary tendencies (and the artful way in which he went about advancing them), I have to say that, in the end, I’ve often found him to be gimmicky, if not completely whiny and insufferable. And if you cut your hair funny and dye it black and wear lots of white belts and polyester, well, then I think that’s maybe not the kind of thing you want to hear. The guy is fairly well lauded, after all.

But 1991, though. I can’t get over it. That makes this music that much more revolutionary. I’ll get into that momentarily, but first I think it may be instructive to see how Dischord Records characterizes the band on their website:

The Nation of Ulysses was a violent separatist political party and terrorist group operating out of Washington, D.C. in the early 1990’s. Though they’ve disappeared into obscurity, they’ve spawned countless milquetoast imitators who’ve tried to appropriate their looks, language, sound and presentation for the sake of career advancement. These cheap imitators can’t comprehend that the Nation of Ulysses derived their awesome power from their unswerving commitment to secession and havoc wreaking, and not to the banal and unimportant pursuit of fame and wealth. The N.O.U. is probably the most important development to beset music since electrification, as they were the first to articulate intent through written manifestos and stage histrionics, refuting rock’n’roll’s traditional policy of posturing rebelliously while aping parent culture values.

This is the kind of “punk rock as revolutionary fun” manifesto we would later see from the likes of Ink & Dagger and Refused, but years earlier, long before the kind of hyper-PC culture of nineties hardcore punk bemoaned by many in Burning Fight had really taken hold.

But then, I guess that’s DC, right? I mean, first they give us that first wave of hardcore with Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, et al, and then many of those same players do a complete reversal during the Revolution Summer era, giving us bands like Embrace, Rites of Spring and One Last Wish (really, a whole new genre), and then, here comes Nation of Ulysses on the tails of that with something completely new and fresh, respecting and extending both the energy and the politics of the scenes that came before.

“Diptheria” is a cautionary morality tale, and the first line is its thesis: the road to hell is paved with chocolate sweets. It’s the kind of thing that could really apply to any worldview (Look out! That thing you think looks so enticing is actually poison! You better put wax in your ears/pray to your God/commit yourself to the cause), but in the context of NOU we know that this is an allegory about capitalism and its allure. Taken more broadly, it might be about the way that we — all of us humans — like to romanticize and obsess about things instead of really living and appreciating what we have.

I talked about the music being fresh. It begins with the fast strumming of a lone clean electric guitar, and it sounds like the song is going to be an uptempo punk number, but fifteen seconds in, everything turns. The song takes a more languid lounge feel, and the clean strummed guitar is joined by the rest of the band, including a distorted electric guitar repeating a phrase made up of single notes. Look, I’m getting in over my head with the technical explanations of an instrument I can’t play, so you’ll just have to click the video below, but suffice it to say that the song builds back to an energy that, while very different than the intro suggests, is still quite powerful. Svenonius’ trademark punk cabaret vocals further elaborate the fable for us, and by the time the song is over, the entire band is at a fever pitch, and while rooted firmly in punk rock, there is a sense that the band may just as well be performing at a full gospel church or a Southside Chicago blues bar. Oh, and there’s some trumpet. Were they the first to do this in punk rock? Constatine Sankathi came a few years later…

Nation of Ulysses were true innovators, and definitely my favorite Ian Svenonius project. They advanced the culture (of punk rock) politically and musically, insisting that we all have fun along the way. Hitting all three of these is all too rare.

Finally, I fear I would be remiss if I did not point out that the 13 Point Plan to Destroy America contains sixteen tracks. Ladies and gentelmen, Nation of Ulysses: