The One Voted Most Likely to Succeed
SNFU frontman, Mr. Chi Pig, known to his parents as Kendall Chin, died last week of an undisclosed illness at the age of 57. This just doesn’t seem right. I didn’t really know him, but back in the early 90s in Vancouver, me and Chin used to ride the bus downtown from East Van(couver, for those who don’t know). We didn’t talk much, we usually had our Walkmen and music, but we did a few times. He was an odd dude, but, whatevs. He was really nice, though. We talked about music mostly, because NoMeansNo lived down the street from me, and he asked me one day when I got on the bus if I knew them. Only to see them, I said, I generally didn’t run up to famous people to ask them how they were doing. He burst out laughing at that one. He thought it amusing I considered the Wright brothers famous. He then realized I never actually spoke to him first. He asked me if I thought he was famous. I was a little dumbfounded. He was only the frontman of one of the most important hardcore punk bands ever.
SNFU, like Chin, was originally from Edmonton, not exactly known as a haven of the hardcore. In their first iteration, in the 80s, they had been based there. He moved the band to Vancouver in the early 90s. Vancouver seemed a more fitting place for a band like SNFU, frankly. Vancouver is where Canadian hardcore was invented (I’d argue it was the birthplace of hardcore, period, but, well, Americans don’t like to accord Canadians that, and frankly, most Americans look at me blankly when I point out Vancouver’s importance as a punk city in the first place; but it was not for nothing that DOA hosted the Hardcore ’81 ‘festival’ in VanCity, that their album of the same name is often regarded as the first time the term was actually used). They played a fair amount around the city and I had seen them a few times by the time Chin and I discussed fame. Christ. What a live show, this constant barrage of guitars, bass, drums, and Mr. Chi Pig, who was slightly insane on stage.
By 1993, they were earning their dues as pioneers in the scene and were signed to the Orange County punk label, Epitaph (though to be fair, Epitaph was home to poseurs too, like The Offspring). Epitaph actually paid its artists, or at least that was the rumour, and we were in the midst of the third-wave of punk, which would soon lead to the Vans Warped Tour the death of punk. That year, SNFU released Something Green and Leafy This Way Comes, but it kinda flopped. I loved it, though. But, I guess I can see how it can be seen more as veterans re-finding their feet. And by now, they were veterans. SNFU was Chin with brothers Marc and Brent Belke on guitar, and a rotating case of bassists and drummers. They’d been playing music since they were teenagers on the frozen tundra of Edmonton.
In 1995, though, they had regrouped and they dropped The One Voted Most Likely to Succeed, their second of their Epitaph trilogy. They’d gone into Vancouver’s legendary Mushroom Studios in December 1994, and spent two weeks working with producer Dave ‘Rave’ Ogilvie, at that time most famous for being a member of Skinny Puppy and producing them (he has gone onto superstar status, producing everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Carly Rae Jepson). That’s all it took. Two weeks. And out came some hardcore punk brilliance.
One thing I have always found interesting is that when I listened to Epitaph bands in the mid-90s, the likes of Rancid, Bad Religion, Lagwagon, etc., it was remarkable how they all sounded basically the same, there was a formula to their music. Wall of sound guitars, heavy, fast drums, bass and shouted vocals, though Tim Armstrong of Rancid could sing (even if he sounded like a Joe Strummer clone). Their formula, though, was based on SNFU.
I got this album for free, I was a music writer in those days for an underground Vancouver magazine called Grind, and Epitaph flooded us with music. Some of it was excellent, some of it was pure shite, most of it was meh. But I remember the box in the office with Epitaph’s return address that week, it was sometime in the spring of 1995. It’s all kinda blurry. I opened it, I was hoping an album I wanted would be in it (I don’t remember what album anymore, though), and this was the one on top. I hadn’t seen Chin since I left East Van for the westside in February 1994. In fact, I never actually saw him again, except for being the crowd at an SNFU show. But I was stoked for this album.
I scooped the CDs I wanted and headed home. Grind‘s offices were in North Van at what was then Capilano College where the guy who edited it, I also can’t remember his name, worked. I think. It was a long ride home, it involved a bus from the college to the SeaBus at Lonsdale Quay, and then the SeaBus across Burrard Inlet to Waterfront Station downtown, and then from there, I walked up to the corner of Granville and West Pender and caught the #17 Oak bus home, which itself was a bit of a ride, as the bus made its way along Pender to Cambie and southbound on Cambie, over the Cambie Street bridge, along Broadway, and then, finally, up Oak. We lived at West 20th, Broadway was West 9th. On that ride home, I slipped this into my Discman.
Before I even got on the bus at Cap College, the guitar was pulsing into my left speaker before the right speaker filled with the lead and bass and drums. And then the song, ‘Rusted Rake,’ exploded. Mr. Chi Pig’s voice was a clear tenor, but he was smart enough to never try to overpower the music. He didn’t yell, he had melody. And SNFU were melodious in their hardcore noise. Rob Johnson was the bassist and Dave Rees was drummer.
The album exploded into the second track ‘A Better Place,’ which is all kinds of hardcore fury, pounding drums, a bassline carrying the rhythm, a fast churning rhythm guitar and a lead guitar that shrieks, not so much for the same reason hair metal band guitarists did, but because there is so much electricity pulsing through that guitar, it’s exploding periodically, and all the guitarist can do is control it. Brent and Marc Belke both played guitar, they both played rhythm, they both played lead. I always thought this was one of the most sensitive hardcore songs I’ve ever heard, as Mr. Chi Pig contemplates the mortality of what I had always presumed was his grandmother, but could’ve been any elderly lady:
She is old, yes very old
As she contemplates her nap
She knows damn well that if she sleeps
It just might be the last
So she lay with her eyes affixed
And slowly drifts away
Her life’s been rough and sure enough
She is never to awake.
Gone, she has gone away
Gone, to a better place.
For one last time she dreams the dream
Of being very young
Back to when her days were full of beauty
And her nights were full of love
As her beauty did fade
She got pushed and shoved
Into a corner
Like the Ugly Duck that no one wants
And nobody wants you.
Gone, she has gone away
Gone, to a better place.
By now, the bus had come and I was on my way to Lonsdale Quay. Vancouver is a city of intense natural beauty, which makes the tragedy of its built environment all the more depressing, especially in the 90s before all the glass towers were built (true story: in the 00s, I was watching the NHL playoffs and this Air Canada ad showed all the places the airline flew, but the last city made no sense to me, it looked like Vancouver, but the mountains were in the wrong spot; it took me almost a year to realize I was looking at Hong Kong, not Vancouver).
Listening to ‘Big Thumbs’ I was struck just how much Mr. Chi Pig and Rob Wright of NoMeansNo sounded alike when they sang. They were like these last guards of attempts to provide melody to viciously fast, hardcore music.
‘Drunk on a Bike’ is, at 2m50sec, the second longest track on the album. And it tells the sad tale of a guy who had a blowout fight with this wife, went on a bender and then rode his bike into an oncoming car. But this was Mr. Chi Pig’s superpower. He could take that tragedy, whether this guy or that old woman in ‘A Better Place,’ and he could provide some humanity, some tenderness, some love for them. In his powerful tenor, he delivers his lyrics, and you start to think about the loser in the story and you feel for them. Nobody else in hardcore could do that. Only him. This is what we’ve lost with his death.
‘My Mold Collection’ is a simple track, the first half minute of which is Mr. Chi Pig singing something through distortion over an almost slide guitar, and then it explodes into a nice little ditty about his mold collection at home. That slides into ‘Bumper Stickers,’ which is, well, a song about bumper stickers, as Mr. Chi Pig reads off the bumper stickers he’s seen, the chorus asks if you ever read them (I do, actually), and questions what the point of them really is.
And then that leads into perhaps the greatest of SNFU’s songs, ‘Eric’s Had a Bad Day.’ I fucking love this track. It starts with some radio voice in my ear, still on that interminable bus ride: ‘Hey kids, this one’s fresh and it’s new, uh, it’s SNFU with “Eric’s Had a Bad Day.”‘ And, yes, indeed Eric had a bad day. Over a scorching lead guitar, we learned about Eric who gets a speeding ticket, steps in human shit, busts his jaw at the skate park, buys a new amp only to be kicked out of his band, and also, to cap it off, went into convulsions after guzzling a pint of salsa. Now, I have always wondered why in the name of all that is holy why anyone would drink a pint of salsa. But, in the years since, I have met people who do not find that so strange. I am convinced that, at home, late at night, with the lights off, only that coming from the fridge, this is what they do. Yes, they drink salsa by the pint. I can’t imagine what that’s like. Do they drink mild salsa? Or do they like a bit of spice with their salsa? But, by any metric, Eric’s had not just a bad day, but an epically shite day. You feel for the guy.
‘The King of Skin’ is an attack on Larry Flynt, Jerry Falwell, and Pee Wee Herman, for their various crimes. There is no sympathy for this trio of Bozos, but it’s the music I dig the most. The guitars are charging, one in the left channel, one in the right, playing the same chords, but the bass here is classic punk, played with a pick, the guitars blasting, the drums just pounding. By this time, I’m off the bus. And I’m waiting at Lonsdale Quay, because I can see the last SeaBus about 80 metres from the dock heading for Vancouver. The next one is clear across Burrard Inlet, but it’s going to be another 15 minutes at least. ‘My Mutated Dog’ ends with one guitar flanged, the other pulsating and shrieking. It’s glorious.
The album is all of 29 minutes long. It is classically punk rock, the way God intended it to be. The album ended long before I even got on the SeaBus. So I just played again. It ended the second time as I walked up the foot of Granville Street between Water and West Hastings streets. So I pressed play again. This time it got me to the corner of Oak and West 16th, one stop and four blocks before my exit. So I took off my headphones, my ears ringing slightly. I kinda felt bad for all the chumps who were sitting near me. But, meh, I can hear three other Walkmen playing and I can hear the lyrics to House of Pain from the guy two seats in front of me.
I honestly can’t remember if I even reviewed this for Grind. I probably did. I have blasted this album over and over for the past 25 years, most often shocked that it’s been 25 years. And when Ken Chin died, I put it in and turned up loud. And I reflected on those bus rides with him, and I thought about his life, which was not easy. They got fucked over royally by Epitaph, which caused the band to fracture, and by 2005 or 2006, Chin was in a steady spiral downwards, into depression, poverty, and ultimately, homelessness. And yet, he continued to work on a solo album that never saw the light of day and by 2007, he had a new iteration of SNFU up and running. In 2010, Sean Patrick Shaul, a documentarian, produced one about Chin, Open Your Mouth and Say…Mr. Chi Pig!, which looked at his life and times and considered his impact on hardcore, and rock music as a whole.
And then last November, Sean Orr, a journalist with BeatRoute, a Vancouver-based indie paper, interviewed him after running into him at the legendary Cambie Pub, and Chin announced he was dying. He said he had a month left, though he held on until 16 July 2020. I hope he sleeps well.