When the American punk movement known as hardcore began in earnest in the 1980s, nobody was gunning to score record contracts, or even to release their own albums; that was the sort of thing only rock stars did. Instead, hardcore punks cherished creating a community of like minds, and compilations were that sentiment in action: Dozens, if not hundreds, were released on labels like Washington, D.C.'s Dischord, San Francisco's Alternative Tentacles and even Seattle's Sub Pop, back when only a few locals had heard their cassette-only offerings. Each one was intended to give each band a fighting chance -- on Dischord's "Flex Your Head," for example, a great Minor Threat song could bolster the lesser ones. Taken together, they helped weave a tightly knit, intricate network of bands built from the ground up, a sort of Underground Railroad of suburban outcasts.
So in 1997, with scenes fully mapped out and the music doing platinum business, what good is another punk compilation? Seeking a new answer, "Generations I: A Punk Look at Human Rights" bravely suggests that punk can do globally what it once did locally. Dedicated to those who suffer injustice worldwide, the liner notes include the complete text of Eleanor Roosevelt's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," a document whose celebration of self-determination dovetails with the respect punks demanded but rarely received. True to its sentiment, "Generations" is an accessible if diverse work, accommodating avant-garde ranting, garage-bound trash-rock, spare soulfulness and raw thrashing under the "punk" tent. And while it's just as prone to missteps as those old compilations were, a familiar sense of mutual appreciation and support pervades it.
Like elder priests offering a benediction, the Clash's Joe Strummer and the Damned's Rat Scabies return to help fire the first salvo. Under the moniker Electric Dog House, "Generations" layers atmospheric meditations over rumbling beats and ends up being the best work either of them have done in years. Driving the album's message home more forcefully, Me First and the Gimme-Gimmes' teeth-grinding cover of Neil Diamond's "Coming to America" is as pointed as it is hilarious, while the insistent throb of DFL's "Health Care For All Americans" elevates its subject above cheap sloganeering. And taken to its furthest extreme, "The Alien Song" by the Red Aunts and X's Exene Cervenkova squeals art-damaged noise poetry. (Exene's ex-husband, John Doe, also appears separately, with the bluesy "Criminal.") As an added bonus for the archivists, the album also digs up a wickedly brutal chestnut from 1979-era Bad Brains, "Don't Bother Me."
For all of its broad-mindedness, though, "Generations I" (Ark 21 plans three more) could stand even more diversity. Nearly all the bands featured are from California, and a few borrow heavily from the West Coast punk sound -- note Pennywise's straight cover of Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown." It's a bit much for a record that makes claims to worldwide unity -- if you want to change the world, Orange County's a great place to start, but it's no place to stick around.