Michael Cudahy Talks About the Best Label From Boston You've Never Heard Of
Overlooked and under appreciated, Propeller Records was a label run as a collective and home to Boston art punk in the early 80s.
When an older gentleman approached me at an art show and introduced himself as Michael Bastrarche, the producer behind SS Decontrol and D.Y.S., I instantly nerded out. He and his wife told great anecdotes about Boston punk, hardcore, postpunk, and pretty much anything that had happened there during the golden era. I like that they still went to shows and thought Fucked Up used to be better.
When they asked me if I liked Propeller Records, my record-nerd knowledge hit a brick wall. In all my years of flipping through dusty LPs in asbestos-insulated record shops, I hadn’t listened to a single release from Propeller. I liked Dangerous Birds and Christmas, but had no clue about this label. I promised to go check it out.
Google yielded little, but I managed to dig up a download of Laughing at the Ground, a 1982 7-inch compilation from Propeller.
Particularly surprising was the 21-645 track “Babble” It’s as anthemic as any Mission of Burma hit, but features a guitar hook that sounds more like Neu! than something from a hardcore band of that era. Also, Propeller’s record sleeves looked like something from Peter Saville if he were American, which can only be viewed as a good thing.
Eventually I tracked down Michael Cudahy, one of Propeller’s founders, and told him I wanted to pick his brain and find out more about its history. He downplays the label’s success, but Propeller Product EP sold over 5,000 copies. By today’s dismal sales figures, especially in terms of independent operations, that’s almost like going platinum. So I’m happy to relay to you lots of stuff you probably didn’t know about a great label that time forgot.
VICE: Propeller’s releases had something like a Factory Records aesthetic that contrasted most of the cut-and-paste design of a lot of punk/postpunk in the early 80s. What was the inspiration for the design?
Michael Cudahy: None of us were really graphic artists or going to art school. We wanted a unified aesthetic. I remember having a meeting where we spent over an hour deliberating what typeface to use. The label was supposed to be a collective, which was a terrible idea in retrospect. I started it with my friends Steve and Justin from Wild Stares. I wanted to release a compilation of cool bands I thought weren’t being done justice.
You can imagine what happens when you get a room full of 30 art-punk musicians with all of their agendas. Running the label as a collective sucked. We had weekly meetings that would devolve into little knots of bickering caucuses, or drunken parties if things were going well. There was some resentment from the artists, since they were putting money into the label and hadn’t had a record released yet and wondered what they were getting out of it.
Was the “Pay No More than $2.00” label that was featured on some releases a nod to Crass?
I had seen other labels doing that, including Dischord. We wanted it to be for the people; we didn’t want to gouge the kids. None of us thought we’d make money; we were happy not to lose money.
At the time lots of hardcore bands were blossoming in Boston, but you were off on this very different art-punk tangent. Was there any crossover between the scenes? Did everyone get along?
That’s a complicated story; it’s like asking someone, “How do you feel about your brother.” Gallery East was where most of the hardcore bands were playing. Downstairs in the same building was a place where we’d practice and where most of the recordings for the Propeller cassette were done. I remember hearing Out of Vogue, and at first I thought it was kind of a joke. I thought, Oh my god listen to how fast they’re playing! This is awesome! To the people a bit younger than me, hardcore was punk rock. For me, punk rock was a refuge, where I could go and not get beaten up by jocks.
Two years after punk happened and hardcore came along in Boston, it was like, “Hey you were the guys who beat me up for being punk and now you’re in a band!” Propeller was like the weird offshoot species. Despite the perception of Boston being this liberal town, it has a serious working-class ethos. I like to think of it as this rough-and-tumble city, and that was reflected in the music scene there.
So you had no issues with the hardcore kids?
A lot of the hardcore scene didn’t like what we were doing. Oddly enough, it was one-sided, like the weird relationship between LA and San Francisco—a lot of us did like hardcore. My problem with it was the social element of it, how it felt like Boston jock rock.
Hardcore was Boston’s musical export, but it seems like no one from that world went on to do anything interesting, at least musically.
Hardcore was really important, almost in a hip-hop way, in terms of showing your hometown pride. Propeller was definitely far, far underground, even though Thalia Zedek (Dangerous Birds, Live Skull, Come) had a long and successful career, and I’m still playing music despite being out of the popular music game. In a way, hardcore took over and shunted our gene pool into extinction.
Can you tell me more about the Underground, which seemed to be the hub for Propeller and its bands? It seems like quite a storied venue.
The Underground, where a lot of us met and eventually played, was only around for a little over a year. It was across the street from my tiny apartment, so the club was like our living room. It was also the only venue in town that would book that type of music. The Cure played there and Joy Division were going to play there… That was the only game in town for a certain type of thing. The guy who ran the place was Jim Kaufman, and Michael Whittaker, who later worked with SST, was the sound guy. Jim went on to manage Mission of Burma.
From my experience, a lot of creative people who cut their teeth in Boston eventually leave. It’s just that type of place. It’s got a ceiling, and you move to New York or LA or wherever. Was that the case with Propeller?
Propeller imploded. I moved to Boston in 1979, right out of high school. I’d never lived in a big city before, so I thought it was the greatest place in the world, but a couple years later I was touring and seeing other cities. I came home and wanted to get out. Boston has a high turnover of creative people. They’re there for college, and then they move on.