June 28, 2018 | by James Greene, Jr.
T.S.O.L. may have put a graveyard on the cover of their first full-length to help sell material about necrophilia and Bram Stoker, but their “death rock” shroud couldn’t wash away the surfy influence of merely existing in Long Beach. Breathe deep into 1981’s Dance with Me and you’ll taste as much salty sea air and Sex Wax as formaldehyde. Maybe this is why the group had so much difficulty going full goth (read: adding keyboard, piano) on 1983’s Beneath the Shadows — macabre sounds inauthentic when the warm California sun is baked into your DNA.
Beneath the Shadows has its defenders even though it feels meandering and empty when compared to the ghoulish jab of Dance with Me. Of course, Beneath the Shadows might as well be Frampton Comes Alive when you consider the popularity of the LP that came after it. Verily, 1984’s Change Today? marks the beginning of T.S.O.L.’s “in the weeds” years. It’s the first record the group made without infamously insouciant singer Jack Grisham, whose gnarly tenor should be as remarked upon as his police record. Drummer Todd Barnes is also missing from Change Today? and admittedly this makes the title very apropos (or a little on the nose).
Replacing Grisham and Barnes are Joe Wood and Mitch Dean, respectively, and the T.S.O.L. of Change Today? does not actually sound far off from the miscreants behind Dance with Me and the equally lauded 1981 EP T.S.O.L. The exception is Wood, whose throatier vocal undercuts the morbid atmosphere with a rockist sheen. It works most of the time. Still, T.S.O.L. must have been wary. Still, T.S.O.L. must have wary; they throw Grisham fanatics a bone by having guitarist Ron Emory mimic the departed singer almost expertly on the manic cut “In Time.”
Dean and bassist Mike Roche prove a vibrant rhythm section; it’s fun to hear them kick these selections into third gear. Alas, the work on Change Today? isn’t strong enough to move vividly across any stretch of asphalt. It’s a thoroughly alright exercise in cobweb punk that can’t carry intrigue beyond song one (the coffin-rattling “Black Magic”). It is said the Dead Kennedys paid for T.S.O.L.’s studio time to record Change Today? The DKs should have kept the money and made their last two records sound better.
T.S.O.L. recorded three more albums with Joe Wood. But what’s more interesting is the fact that by 1990 the group retained zero original members, leaving an entire lineup of what a more bitter individual might call scabs. The original T.S.O.L. members regrouped on their own after that and suddenly there were two editions of this semi-legendary skate-punk assembly running around. As Joe Wood’s T.S.O.L. tried to pretend nothing was happening, the other guys released a live album under the moniker Grisham, Roche, Emory, & Barnes. Punk wasn’t dead, it just sounded like a law firm. It was a lawsuit that finally freed the T.S.O.L. name from Wood et al in 1999, allowing Jack Grisham to take his rightful place with his band on the Vans Warped Tour.
There’s the true sound of liberty — suing somebody to get the rights back to your punk band.