1986 - 1988: The Early Period (The Punk/Hardcore Era)
Anarchy was founded in 1986 in Washington, Indiana, by Michael Baker (initially rhythm guitar), Michael Potts (lead guitar), and Travis Reel (drums). Baker and Reel had become friends at school, primarily through a love of music, and were in the same junior high school class. Reel and Potts, who was a few years older, crossed paths because they lived in the same neighborhood and shared a love of music. The trio began rehearsing at various locations on the west end of town (frequently being asked to move) with the intent of finding a lead vocalist and a bassist to fill out the lineup.
Various names were entertained for the fledgling group, with Bad Attitude serving as the band's name for a short period of time. Some archival posters exist with this name, featuring a cartoon of a man with a bushy, handlebar moustache holding a revolver. However, the group eventually settled on the name Anarchy, as a nod the infamous Sex Pistols' song, "Anarchy in the UK."
Befitting the group's moniker, the bands' initial musical style was punk/hardcore. While the group played some cover songs (e.g., Black Sabbath, Motorhead, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag), the group primarily played original music, composed primarily by Baker.
As would be true throughout the band's career, Anarchy had its own unique spin on its chosen genre, which they facetiously referred to as "happy hardcore." While the music was certainly in the hardcore style and often contained dark, subversive lyrics, the music was typically written in a major key and contained unconventionally catchy melodies for the genre. This disconnect between the musical style and the lyrics and the music's harmonic and melodic structure, created an ironic tension that became the group's trademark. The band's lyrics addressed such themes as political corruption and authoritarianism (e.g., the group's eponymous song infamously began "Screw all the politicians and their fascist ambitions"), school indoctrination and conformity (e.g., "Ode to WHS," written after Baker was escorted from a school assembly for refusing to stand during the school song), and the folly of war ("Die on Command").
During this early period, the band struggled to find a lead vocalist and bassist. A revolving door of aspiring vocalists and bassists attempted to fill the roles, but all who were hired ending up departing, usually by their own choice. However, many of these folks went on to found their own musical groups, and in this way, Anarchy was an inspiration, incubator, and touchstone for young musicians in the area at the time. These personnel challenges led to Baker assuming vocal duties most of the time, which was less than ideal due to his bass voice, and the band doing without a bassist.
Even with this incomplete lineup, the band's early shows were something to behold -- Reel's speed drumming and relentless cymbal crashing, Potts' lightning fast guitar playing and even faster, atonal solos, which were sometimes punctuated with guitar stunts such as playing behind his head and playing the tremolo bar with his foot, and Baker's ironic preaching of the band's unique gospel of cheerful free thought, nonconformity, and rage. A number of low-fi recordings were made of the band's early shows and rehearsals due to the fact that the band actively encouraged bootlegging and also recorded and circulated various low-fi recordings themselves.
The subversive potential of the band's music did not go unnoticed by authority. Among other things, local law enforcement officials unjustly accused the band of various, incredible misdeeds; ministers preached against the band from their pulpits, warning parents not to let their children listen to the band's music; and one of Baker's teachers even told him he should be "taken out and shot." Perhaps, this sort of reactionism is inevitable in a benighted small town when young people question authority, think for themselves, and encourage others to do so as well. However, the stone throwing did not discourage the band but only strengthened their resolve by proving the veracity of their message. The opposition also gave the band an edgy image, albeit mostly unwarranted, that appealed to and garnered many young supporters.
While the band played a number of house parties early on, its first "real" gig was a four-hour New Year's Eve event in 1988. The band booked the gig while still not having a vocalist or bassist. Since there was little hope of securing a vocalist and bringing her or him up to speed before the show, Baker and Potts agreed to split vocal duties for the show. However, playing the gig without a bassist seemed unacceptable. As a result, the band realized that either Baker or Potts needed to switch from guitar to bass. Both were willing to make the change, but Baker agreed to assume bass duties, as he believed Potts' idiosyncratic, Greg Ginn-esque lead guitar style was critical to the band's sound. Baker received a bass guitar for Christmas and, consequently, had less than a week to learn how to play. A two-cassette, widely circulated bootleg recording was made of this show, titled Live at the Midway. The recording is a treasure for Potts' fans, as it's one of the few recordings with Potts on vocals.
1988 - 1990: The Middle Period (The Transitional Era)
The year 1989 was a pivotal one for Anarchy. In the weeks following their first official gig, Reel became disenchanted with the band and quit. Baker and Potts continued to rehearse, learning more cover songs and writing more originals.
With Reel's departure, the band's music began to shift from a punk/hardcore style to a more accessible rock style. While this shift alienated some early supporters, it garnered many more. The change in direction was motivated by a number of factors. One factor was Baker and Potts' dissatisfaction with the band's limited success and the dearth of opportunities to play music in the punk/hardcore genre. Baker and Potts concluded that by playing more accessible music they could get more gigs and, thus, have more opportunities to showcase their original music. Another factor was that Baker and Potts' musical tastes were changing. Baker had become interested in the early alternative music being played on college radio stations in other regions of the country and in classical and jazz music. Potts had become more interested in music by groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
Cover songs by groups like Sex Pistols and Motorhead were replaced with songs from acts like Styx, Deep Purple, Guns N' Roses, and Rainbow. The original music began to shift direction as well. Most of the early punk/hardcore original material was dropped from the set lists, with a few exceptions early on like the catchy earworm "All I Want." In the new original material, the crunchy, distorted guitar sounds were still there. However, the tempos were more subdued. New songs like "Dead and Gone" and "Far Away from Here" showcased Anarchy's softer side, demonstrating a "cleaner" guitar sound with arpeggiated chords. Not surprisingly, the band began to explore the use of deeper, more pensive lyrics. Angst-filled lines like "screw all the politicians" gave way to "I remember yesterday, and what you used to say. Now you're so far away, far away from here." Later on, during this period, the band began experimenting with alternative music. Baker wrote early versions of the band's alternative classics "Turn to Me," "Dying to Meet You," and "Lonesome Road," which would later become the title track of the group's regionally successful alternative rock album. Baker and Potts also collaborated on The Cure inspired tune, "By My Side," with Potts writing the lyrics and the majority of the music. Even though the original music dramatically changed direction, dark lyrical themes continued to dominate: Shattered relationships ("Lonesome Road"), the longing to be reunited with a deceased loved one ("Dying to Meet You"), and the emotions and feelings of the terminally ill ("By My Side").
In the early summer months of 1989, drummer Nathan Stuffel joined the band. Baker and Stuffel, both sophomores at the same high school, had known each other since elementary school. Stuffel's love of classic rock coincided nicely with the band's new direction. Additionally, Stuffel's easygoing, laid-back persona, Baker and Potts would learn, was in sharp contrast to his aggressive, four-on-the-floor playing style. His playing would come to provide a solid backbone for their music.
In the later summer months of 1989, more changes occurred. Through mutual friends, Baker and Potts became acquainted with Aaron Crosby. Crosby, a 15-year-old guitarist who could also sing, proved to be a great addition to the band.
This newer, more "commercial" version of Anarchy helped the band win new fans and gained attention from the local press.
1990 - 1993: The Final Period (The Alternative Era)
After a year or so, Stuffel left the band to pursue an interest in more blues-oriented music, so the band was left, again, without a drummer. Crosby reached out to drummer Jeremy Payton, who he had worked with in a previous group, to fill the drummer slot, and Payton accepted.
Around this time, unrelatedly, Matt Newton was recruited for lead vocal duties. Newton's classically trained, powerful tenor voice dramatically transformed the sound of the group. Newton also contributed enormously to the songwriting process going forward, writing most of the lyrics and collaborating with Baker on writing the music.
During this period, the band's original music shifted again, this time almost completely to alternative rock, and by the early 1990s, the group had become a full-fledged, alternative rock powerhouse. Since "less-than-barely-anyone" in the area knew about, much less listened to, alternative music at the time, "betting the house" on the alternative genre may not have seemed like a formula for success, and perhaps, it wasn't. However, the group sensed that the new music they were writing in this genre was accessible, high quality, and could open up opportunities for the band -- and it did.
The band continued playing their earlier alternative songs such as "Lonesome Road," "Dying to Meet You," and "Turn to Me" with some lyrical and musical revisions by Baker and Newton. The new Baker and Newton writing collaboration produced a number of new Anarchy alternative favorites such as "Shame" and "Night By Night." Once again, the use of dark lyrical themes continued: The struggle to overcome a rape ("Shame"), the drudgery of day-to-day work life ("Make a Better Day"), environmental destruction ("End This Nightmare"), and the plight of the homeless ("Night by Night"). Interestingly, some church groups thought the latter song was about prostitution and were upset by this. While their interpretation was quite obviously incorrect, the band would have been willing to write and perform a song about sex workers, so perhaps, these folks should have been upset with the band nonetheless.
Over time, the band's original alternative music took a more jazz-influenced direction. The group combined the clean guitar sound of groups like The Cure and The Smiths with jazz elements such as extended chords, chord substitutions, altered chords, Wes Montgomery-style dark guitar tones, and walking bass lines. In addition, the group added instrumentation not conventional in rock music like classical guitars, dulcimers, and recorders. Furthermore, the musical arrangements took on more complexity. For example, in order to give the music a richer sound, Baker would often use not only extended chords but also have each guitarist play a different extended chord. For instance, one guitarist might play a D minor 7 chord while the other played an A minor 7 chord. The result of this would be the overall effect of a D minor 11 chord, but with a much richer sound than if both guitarists simply played a D minor 11 chord due to the variation in voicing. Baker used a number of arrangement techniques such as this to give the group its dark, rich, distinctive sound.
The group realized that, given its now complete abandonment of its punk/hardcore roots, there was a disconnect between the band's name and its music, and the group discussed changing the name at various times. However, the group always concluded that the original name should be kept, so as not to lose the name recognition they had worked so hard to earn. In an effort to explain the disconnect, when asked about the band's name in newspaper, radio, and TV interviews, members would respond, somewhat disingenuously, that one definition of anarchy is chaos, which described the group's diverse musical influences and styles. Ultimately, though, what the band's name meant to the band was not important. What the band's name meant to the fans is what mattered, and anarchy meant something slightly different to everyone. Whatever personal meaning anarchy had for fans, it usually had something to do with freedom of thought, nonconformity, and the desire for a better, different world.
This period of the band's history was the most successful, and during this time, the band recorded their only studio album, the regionally successful alternative rock album Lonesome Road. The band received extensive media coverage (newspapers, television, and radio). Their music, particularly the song "Shame," received radio play. The band performed in other areas of the state, headlined gigs at large theaters, played large festivals, and gigged on the college circuit. However, "success," in the sense of being able to make a living playing music, continued to elude the band.
Ironically, Anarchy disbanded in 1993, just after alternative music became mainstream. While the group might have ridden the breakthrough of alternative music to success, for better or worse, the version of alternative music that became mainstream was the Nirvana/grunge variety, rather than the clean, melodic version of groups like Anarchy. This failure, along with life changes in the group, sealed the band's fate. The group quietly folded and liquidated in 1993.
In some ways, Anarchy was a musical harbinger, far ahead of its time and its place. In other ways, the band remained as they started, musical rebels and outcasts: In spite of their best efforts to be accessible and commercial, they couldn't, at least enough to be sustainably successful, and in the end, they were even too alternative to be alternative. So, perhaps, in retrospect, it's appropriate that the band's rebellious moniker was never changed. As Alexander Pope stated in his Essay on Man:
Aspiring to be angels, men rebel
-- Michael Baker and Michael Potts, April 2016