When the last original member of the Ramones, Tommy Erdelyi, died in 2014, the three surviving members of the Suicide Commandos decided it finally was time to come alive again.
Even then, though, the members of Minnesota’s pioneering punk-rock trio didn’t exactly break any land speed records.
“I said, ‘The Ramones are all dead, and we’re all still alive,’ ” bassist/co-vocalist Steve Almaas recalls telling his bandmates, who opened for the Ramones’ first Twin Cities gig in 1977. Much like the Ramones did for the world in the late ’70s, the Commandos created a blueprint for all the DIY Minnesota punk bands that followed, including the Replacements and Hüsker Dü.
“We should make another record while we’re all still here,” Almaas concluded.
That mantra may lack the youthful vim and vigor and biting aggression that defined the Suicide Commandos the first time around, but it’s arguably more purposeful. It might even be more punk rock.
And it finally sparked a hard-rocking new Commandos album, “Time Bomb,” which lands Friday via the newly relaunched Twin/Tone label. The band took three years after Almaas’ challenge to put out the LP, but that’s still relatively quick considering that its previous studio album — its one and only other studio album — came out in 1978.
“We’re on the one-album-every-39-years plan,” guitarist/co-vocalist Chris Osgood cracked. “It’s worked well for us so far.”
Actually, things did work out pretty well for the Commandos over the years. Osgood, Almaas and drummer/singer Dave Ahl — all in their early 60s now — lasted as a full-time band for only four years (1975-79) and never made a big splash commercially. However, in the ensuing years they remained good friends with stable personal lives and steady day jobs.
They’ve reunited for Suicide Commandos shows every couple of years since the mid-1990s, when Mercury Records reissued their prior album, “Make a Record.” The 1978 LP originally came out on Blank Records, a Mercury subsidiary run by future Metallica managers Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch.
Blank Records was short-lived, however, and the label’s demise led to the Commandos’ decision to call it quits at the end of 1979. Almaas’ plan to move to New York didn’t help, either. The trio trumpeted its breakup with three farewell concerts at the old Longhorn Bar in Minneapolis over Thanksgiving weekend that year, which were recorded and released by Twin/Tone as a live LP, “The Commandos Commit Suicide Dance Concert.”
While they have some vague regrets about it now — “We were pretty cocky to think we could all just start new bands and people would like them just as much,” Ahl admitted — the Commandos still believe it was a good decision.
“I sort of look at it like we went out at the top of our game,” Ahl said.
Added Almaas, “It felt like the right time. The Suburbs — who were and are great friends of ours — had come along and were kind of the hot new kings of the hill, and it felt like it was time for us to step aside.”
Despite their friendships and semi-frequent reunions, the Commandos claim they never really thought about making another album until 2014.
“The timing was just never right to make another record,” explained Almaas, who enjoyed modest success with the Blasters-style roots-rock band Beat Rodeo after moving to New York. He has since joined remade lineups of cult-loved ’80s groups the Del Lords and the Raybeats.
Now living in West Saugerties, N.Y., the bassist pointed out the role technology played in making a new Commandos record a reality: “Even just a few years ago, it would’ve been a lot harder to do it this way,” he said.
Almaas sent song ideas back and forth via e-mail to his bandmates in the Twin Cities in the months leading up to their recording sessions. One of his songs, “Hallelujah Boys,” struck everyone as the perfect opening salvo for the record. It preaches the joys of rock ’n’ roll around the rousing hook, “Hallelujah, boys, we’re on the road again.”
The Commandos finally entered a studio again in April 2016, when Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould — one of countless musicians Osgood mentored as a guitar teacher and general supporter over the decades — invited them to open two shows at First Avenue. They rocked the packed club two nights in a row, then spent three days holed up in producer Kevin Bowe’s recording facility in south Minneapolis.
In the end, they actually worked fast.
“We just wanted to get the basic tracks done in that time — bass and drums — but wound up getting a lot more,” said Ahl, a Richfield-based sound and construction specialist by trade who designed and built Bowe’s studio. The drummer also designed the rugged 7th Street Entry and hi-fi Terrarium and former Flyte Tyme studios.
“We really had a blast when we were recording,” said Osgood, who over the past decade has worked dual jobs as a vice president at McNally Smith College of Music and a wine importer. “There’s still something special that happens when it’s the three of us, both musically and personally.”
Finding utopia again
Just like on “Make a Record,” all three Commandos sang and wrote for the new album. Ahl’s songs include “Frogtown,” about an especially stormy fight between two ex-lovers. Osgood contributed the temptation-riddled blaster “Boogie’s Coldest Acre” and a cool talking-blues tune, “Pool Palace Cigar,” about some of the gritty small-town bars the band frequented back in the day.
“Before the Longhorn, we had to play all these schools and places in small towns like Faribault,” Osgood recounted. “There was nothing to do once we got into town but hang out at the local bar or pool hall with the interesting people there, drinking in the afternoon.”
The Commandos’ colorful history is documented in Cyn Collins’ new oral-history book, “Complicated Fun: The Birth of Minneapolis Punk and Indie Rock, 1974-1984,” named after the trio’s best-known song. The book publishes this week in conjunction with the LP release.
Some of the more memorable stories involve the parties and other fun the Commandos shared in their early 20s while living together in a big, dilapidated (and cheap!) house by Lake Minnetonka, near where Osgood and Ahl grew up. The so-called Utopia House had no running water or heat and was eventually taken down in a controlled burn, an event the band famously filmed with Devo collaborator Chuck Statler as an ahead-of-its-time music video for the Commandos song “Burn It Down.”
“There wasn’t any CGI [filmmaking effects] in 1977, that’s all 100 percent real!” Ahl bragged. “We were close enough to the fire, the embers from it burned holes in my drumheads.”
As much fun as they had back in those fiery days, the Commandos make it clear they’re not trying to reclaim their youth with “Time Bomb,” which they’re promoting with a listening party Friday in the Turf Club’s Clown Lounge and an acoustic set Saturday afternoon at Treehouse Records. Instead, they’re proudly showing their age and incorporating more of the ’60s Anglophile and garage-rock influences they’ve always loved.
“The one good thing about waiting 39 years to make this record is I believe we are that much better as musicians,” Osgood said.
“There’s over 180 years of experience on this record,” Ahl proudly added. “It’s definitely a record we couldn’t have made in 1977.”
Perhaps they could’ve at least tried to make it in ’87, ’97 or ’07, but at least it’s finally here.