Tuesday, January 24, 2012


I don't post my writing here anymore.

You can see my posts on WFMU's "Beware of the Blog" here. I mirror many of these pieces on the Free Music Archive.

Also working on a couple articles for print 'zines. Music-oriented material. Some fiction.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Absentee: Me

Yeah, it's been awhile. And it'll be even longer -- a month, maybe two. Working on some new pieces that will either go here or in various 'zines. Speaking of, the Knots and Easter Monkeys features will be included in the next issue of Roctober.

In the meantime:

Monday, February 08, 2010

Nailed to the Cross: The Rise and Fall of the Easter Monkeys

It was November of ’82. Jeffrey Lee Pierce and his Gun Club were scheduled to play their first Cleveland gig at the Pop Shop, a small bar located under its much larger sister venue, the Agora. Every punk and wayward rocker in the area looked forward to it.

But the Gun Club were a disappointment. They were drugged, tour-spent and in poor form, and they struggled to keep the formidable crowd that descended upon the Shop that fateful eve.

It was the opener, Cleveland’s own Easter Monkeys, who caught everyone’s attention. They had not only upstaged the beloved headliner, but they had also openly insulted them when vocalist Chris Yarmock, wrapping the Monkeys’ set, introduced Pierce thusly: “Porky Pig’s next.”

"Everybody knew who I meant," Yarmock laughs today.


By the early '80s, antagonism was nothing new to Yarmock. He actually perfected it in the late ‘70s, while fronting his first band, the Kneecappers.

"We had a tendency to cause riots," says Yarmock. "For one show, people literally tore the fucking stage down” -- but not before one of the spectators managed to crawl underneath and remove his clothing. Somewhere in there, the band also smashed most of its gear.

During a Communist Party fundraiser show at Cleveland State University, guitarist Gary Lupico sparked a similar riot that ended in police violence. There were inevitable arrests: Lupico, bassist Russell Sherman and several others. It was a regular Kneecapper kinda evening.

The stories were numerous. They lent the band a distinct reputation as punk provocateurs. And more often than not, Yarmock was the ringleader of their frenzied circus. With Lupico and Sherman tethered to their guitar and bass, respectively, and drummer Dave Crane stuck behind the kit, they were mostly limited to the destruction of their instruments and microphone misbehavior; Yarmock had free reign of the stage and the floor. He was unpredictable and volatile, and occasionally, if the situation warranted, violent.

While singing, he would often accost the crowd, or throw beer, or smash and dismantle anything nearby, or physically assault unruly audience members. Sometimes he would forget to sing, and others, he just didn’t feel like it. He would rather get something going. Yarmock’s aggression was always at least palpable.

But it wasn’t mere aggression, either. The Kneecappers had chops. Somewhere in the fury of the live show, they sculpted fairly infectious songs. And they could still stand toe-to-toe with some of the city’s best groups, like the Pagans, whom they always blew away -- “Because we were much wilder,” comments Yarmock.

Maybe it was because bands like the Pagans had managers. The Kneecappers had each other. They enjoyed the kind of chemistry exclusive to very close friends. Musicianship was not the driving factor. There were no hopes of "making it," no delusions of taking the show on the road and enlightening foreign masses. They didn’t have their shit together. And they didn't want to get their shit together. They just wanted something to do.

They first found something to do in '76, at those early Pere Ubu shows at Pirate's Cove, a club nestled in Cleveland’s industrial Flats. It was there that Lupico and Sherman, driving in from the 'burbs, would initially meet a city-based Yarmock, and it was there that they became fast friends. They hung out at every show at the Cove, watching bands like Devo and Peter Laughner's Friction marry art with gut-level r'n'r, witnessing Ubu exercise their uncanny ability to channel the Flats' crumbling, bombed-out doom into a tastefully dark din. And it was at the Cove that they would drink, drug and jaw on about starting a band. Which is eventually, of course, what they did.

After agreeing upon instruments, they gathered at their practice space with cases of beer, lids of grass and bags of crank. They slashed through ideas until they formed songs. They burned through songs until they formed a set. They probably thought of those early Ubu gigs, but they didn't sound like Ubu. They sounded much angrier.

Pere Ubu reflected the sullen undercurrent of the Flats' despoiled buildings, of Cleveland's general sense of desertion. The Kneecappers had more in common with the forces that brought everything to ruin. They had songs like "Blood on the Windshield," “Smokin’ Heroin” and “Urban Kill.” Theirs was a youthful intensity similar to hardcore punk bands like Black Flag. But this wasn't California, and there was no call for disaffected teen solidarity. It was Cleveland, and it was a dismal, decaying post-industrial dystopia ripe for fun-filled riots, and you got yours when and where you could.

"And no one wanted the city,” Yarmock says, “so we just took it." It was easy enough.

But as the ‘70s drew to a close, it all changed. Everything was sidling up to the safe and secure. The chaos had reached its zenith at the Cleveland State incident, and thereafter, the band started focusing on the band.

They wanted to experiment with other areas of music. They wanted to play like musicians. They were adding back-up singers, horn players. They were kissing off punk rock and flirting with funk, reggae and R&B. They were losing their edge.

Yarmock didn't like the forays into funk, reggae and R&B. He couldn't really sing over that stuff anyway. And he didn't want to. So in 1980, he quit.


He was in Otto Moser's, a bar on East 4th Street. It was late afternoon. Maybe early evening. He sat and tossed back a few. It had been a couple months or so since he'd left the 'Cappers.

Charlie Ditteaux walked in with his girlfriend. Yarmock knew Charlie as the bassist for the Impalers, another Cleveland punk mainstay. Their bands had shared bills. They respected and liked each other well enough.

They started talking, and Charlie disclosed that he had also recently parted ways with his group.

As Yarmock remembers it, "We were just sitting around bullshitting, and I said, 'Yeah, I’m outta the band.' And he said, 'Yeah? I’m hooking up with this drummer,' and it was Linda Hudson. He goes, 'We’re just jamming and we’re looking for a guitar player and a singer.' I was like, 'Well, I’m available.'"

Chris Yarmock didn't yet know Linda Hudson. He just knew he wanted a couple more drinks. He and Ditteaux stuck around Otto's and got soused. They started talking about playing together, and they agreed that it seemed like a great idea. Then they talked about guitar players: They needed one.

Ditteaux looked at Yarmock and said, "I know someone who might play guitar."

The two of them walked around the corner from Otto's to Record Rendezvous, one of the city's better dealers in obscure LPs, 45s and cassettes. Jim Jones worked there.

Jones was well-liked in Cleveland, something of a local creative personality. In the early to mid-‘70s, he’d done time with the legendary (and incendiary) Electric Eels, appearing as an impromptu bassist on a handful of their rehearsal recordings. He had also played with the pre-punk Mirrors, whose stellar VU-inspired art-rock had influenced a number of local outfits and, some would argue, helped pave the way for bands like Pere Ubu, with whom he toured as a roadie in the late ‘70s.

By then in his early 30s, Jones was slightly older than Yarmock and Ditteaux. His health was erratic, so he had left behind the excesses of youth, but he still enjoyed the occasional beer and cigarette, and he still pursued artistic and musical endeavors with a teenaged humor and enthusiasm. He attended shows regularly, often encouraging his younger peers to keep at their bands. He was a sharp, funny, approachable guy.

That night, Yarmock and Ditteaux approached him and asked him to play guitar in their new band. He was all for it.


Linda Hudson had been drumming since she was very young. It began at age 11.

Her older brothers, Mike and Brian, had a band that practiced in her parents' home in suburban Wyckliffe, OH. Whenever they weren’t playing around Cleveland or rehearsing, they stowed their gear in the basement. So it didn't take long for a pre-teen Linda to wander downstairs, investigate the Pagans' equipment and select the one instrument that looked like it might be the most fun. She banged on the drums.

It was sporadic at first. Then, eventually, Hudson says from her home in Tennessee today, "I just got to the point where I was getting decent at it, and then Mike asked me to drum, and that’s kinda how it started -- drumming in bands with him."

In ’78 or '79 or so, during a break from the first line-up of the Pagans, brother Mike invited her to drum on the sessions that he would ultimately release as the Les Raving Sounds single on his own Terminal Records. She played on three of the songs; the Cramps’ Nick Knox played on the fourth. It was Linda’s first recorded performance. She was around 14 years old.

Over the next couple years, Mike and Brian took her to several Pagans shows in Cleveland and the surrounding 'burbs. Mike would also take her to NYC, where Brian moved with his no-wave unit, Red Decade. While in New York, Linda and Mike sold Les Raving Sounds and Pagans records out of the trunk of his car. They went to CBGB’s and saw the Ramones.

In NYC, as in Cleveland, she met several interesting characters. They were surely more exciting than her high school peers. They were all older, they were wilder, and they weren't waiting for anything to happen. They were getting shit done.

"When I stopped hanging around my school-age friends and started playing in bands and that," she says, "they were all much older than me. Maybe 13 to 15, sometimes 20 years older."

Through her association with Les Raving Sounds, Linda also met Charlie Ditteaux, whom Mike had brought into the fold as a member of the band's constantly rotating line-up.

Charlie was intense. He was tall, skeletal and quiet. And he was an aggressive musician. His bass pushed out an overdriven, trebly cacophony. Live, it often overpowered the volume of the guitar and drums. His sound and his rail-thin frame -- with perpetual dangling cigarette -- made him a foreboding presence.

Once he left the Impalers, he and Linda had practiced together here and there. It was nothing serious. Then Charlie came back to her with a full ensemble. He introduced her to Chris Yarmock, their singer, and Jim Jones, their guitar player.


It was gradual. The quartet rehearsed when they could at Charlie's place, a townhouse in Five Points known as "Cat City" -- so called because owner Bob Horstemeier played host to some two-dozen felines.

In between dodging cats, draining beers and imbibing in various substances, they managed to work on songs. It was as loose as it was fun: Sometimes Hudson would pound out a beat, which Ditteaux and Jones would adopt and contort to their own purposes. Or a comparatively sober Jones would forge a blunt riff, pound it into the ground; Hudson and Ditteaux would exhume it, prop it up, then ram it into the walls of Cat City's basement. Jones would respond to this with bent rails of feedback, wrenching strings and neck, working pedals and tremolo, while Yarmock, inspired and unhinged, would insert blasts of sax and his own wild vocal accompaniment. Yarmock’s presence was as authoritative as it was dark, and lyrically, he penned notes that were equal parts grave and absurd, inspired as much by Cleveland B-move kingpin Ghoulardi as they were by his coming of age in the city’s crumbling core.

The emerging milieu resembled a near-psychedelic punk caterwaul. They sounded, at times, almost metallic, and at others, meandering and decidedly druggy. Hudson and Ditteaux maintained a solid, propulsive rhythm section that helped carry Jones's wilder guitar explorations, and the Easter Monkeys often played open-ended -- jamming -- which afforded Jones ample room to do just that: explore. His otherworldly guitar, compounded by Yarmock’s ranting lyrics and astral blasts of sax, lent the band a particularly vertiginous quality.

There was a strange bond between the four of them. But somehow, it all worked.


Meanwhile, Jones and Yarmock moved into a house downtown with Pagans guitarist Mike Metoff and his girlfriend, Char. The new joint quickly became a known party destination for Cleveland’s underground punk and rock scene.

It was at this house, after a few months of practice, that Jones, Yarmock, Ditteaux and Hudson convened one evening. They'd been at it for awhile, but they still hadn't played out. What's more, they didn't yet have a name.

They were tooling around in the living room when someone picked up and tossed a stuffed toy monkey. Now mere party detritus, it was once a gag gift from a girlfriend: a toy monkey given on the day of Christ’s resurrection. The four of them laughed as they threw it around the room, and someone blurted it out: the Easter Monkeys.

It was totally ridiculous, not to mention cryptic. So it stuck.


The Easter Monkeys played their first show in 1980 at the Sports Page, an inner-city jock pub decorated in home-team gear. A meager crowd that consisted mostly of friends and like-minded bands had gathered there to see their premier. They all avoided the regulars, who were too engrossed by a game on the TV to care about the band anyway.

It was a sloppy, psychotropic set. It was Linda Hudson’s first live performance. It was Yarmock’s first since his days as a Kneecapper, and he had not been tamed. He was duly possessed and behaved accordingly. Jones and Ditteaux, heads down, were all business, as was typical of most shows throughout their career.

They were received fairly well.

They played steadily throughout the Cleveland area for the next year, often sharing bills with groups like the Idiot Humans and Les Black’s Pink Holes. Their set grew. They’d soon amassed a considerable catalog of about a dozen songs, many of them ranging much longer than the typical short/fast/loud quotient of two minutes. Several of their compositions left room for generous improvisation, too, which often worked to the band’s advantage. What didn’t work during rehearsal would sometimes take flight on stage, and vice-versa. Though they were far from the tightest band in Cleveland, they were developing an intense chemistry.

Chemistry soon gave way to a shared sensibility bordering telepathy. Their free-form jams started to gel. Says Hudson: "We had a sense, like a psychic sense, almost -- all four of us, together. We would go off on a tangent for five minutes, then be back on track, and it would all be at the same time. It's really strange to me today to think that four people were in sync like that, and three of them being drunk and high."

Yarmock, too, intensified. At one show, he dropped his pants and passed out drunk onstage, requiring help from an audience member. Thereafter, throughout a series of gigs, he would occasionally fall asleep onstage due to excessive drinking, and the band, laughing, would typically lullaby him as they played on. A bystander or bandmate would wake him after the performance.

Lyrically, however, Yarmock had matured since his days in the Kneecappers. The black humor of his lines brought a decided low-budget quality to the tunes, but they also lent a dark gravity, particularly on numbers like “Nailed to the Cross,” an eight- to ten-minute-long Hawkwind-like punk jam in which Yarmock would brazenly rebuke his Catholic upbringing while his bandmates riffed onward and upward to a fevered crescendo.

After earning something of a reputation as one of one of the area’s formidable live groups, they were invited by Mike Hudson to take part in Terminal Records’ Cleveland Confidential, a compilation LP that would feature the city’s best underground rock groups. They would share company with bands like the Styrenes, the Defnics, the Pagans and Red Decade, to name but a few. The Easter Monkeys agreed to contribute their dirge-like homage to affordable urban entertainment, “Cheap Heroin.”


It was summer of ’81. Mike Hudson booked them to record at Mike Crossen’s studio on 185th Street. The session was less than ideal. With the compilation’s mastering deadline looming, Hudson pressured the band to finish their take of “Cheap Heroin” as quickly as possible. Ditteaux plugged directly into the soundboard and fried the controls while they made a test run of the song.

Says Yarmock, “With ‘Cheap Heroin,’ we were just running through, getting the sound levels... We had Charlie plugged directly into the board, and he blew it up. Mike Hudson was down there waiting for it, so it was like, ‘You guys wanna go with this?’”

With no real choice in the matter, they went with the botched take of “Cheap Heroin.” It was little more than a recorded practice that made it onto Cleveland Confidential.


The compilation was finally released in ’82. It was somewhat of a success among local underground rockers. Though they were unhappy with the way “Cheap Heroin” turned out, the Easter Monkeys’ first vinyl venture did earn them a fair amount of attention. They now had recorded representation, and various college radio stations around the Midwest gave them play.

They also had achieved more local notoriety, though you couldn’t necessarily tell by the size of their crowds. They continued to play the same local haunts, including Tucky’s, whose elderly, curmudgeonly proprietor was at constant odds with the local crop of punk and rock bands.

It was at Tucky’s that the Easter Monkeys played their release show for Cleveland Confidential. True to form, Old Man Tucky had been especially painful throughout the evening, and as the Monkeys’ set commenced, he immediately screamed at them to lower their stage volume. Jones and Ditteaux removed their instruments and leaned them against their amps, ratcheting the volume to 10. Deafening feedback filled the room. Hudson kicked over her drums. The band then overturned several pieces of equipment and threw beer everywhere before leaving the stage, causing a great deal of costly damage to the venue amidst ear-splitting noise.

Old Man Tucky was beside himself with rage. His bar closed for good shortly after.

From then on, Jones and Ditteaux rarely concluded a set without cranking their amps and removing their guitars, leaving crowds with peals of unrelenting feedback as they and Yarmock would quit the stage. Hudson, undeterred, would usually play on for minutes. Their set would end whenever she tired of thumping her kit. It became what she referred to as “something of a trademark.”


In August of 1982, the Easter Monkeys were invited to open for L.A.’s X at the Cleveland Agora. The Agora was one of the city’s largest concert venues and was reserved almost exclusively for popular touring acts. The gig would guarantee the band a shot at a massive new audience.

X were welcoming and kind. “They were nice people,” Hudson recalls -- so nice, in fact, that they invited the Monkeys to share their catered food and beer. The two bands hit it off, hanging out and trading laughs during the lull between soundcheck and the beginning of the show.

Once they finally took the stage, the Monkeys opened the night with a determined confidence. Their characteristic sloppiness disappeared. Instead, their sound had a pinpointed ferocity. Yarmock was fairly sober, too -- no passing out on stage. The band was in full form, and the crowd was duly impressed.

To Yarmock, they were a bit more professional than usual. “It was probably our slickest show,” he bemoans. “We were on good behavior.”

Nonetheless, their focused offering left an indelible impact on a packed house. The Monkeys enjoyed a wildly enthusiastic reception, and many in attendance were surprised to see a local band outdo the touring headliner, who were also at their peak. Even X had to congratulate them on a spectacular set.

It was something of a milestone for the band. They were making good on their still-growing reputation in Cleveland. They were playing to people they didn’t know -- and to people who didn’t know them.

In November of the same year, when they ventured just under the Agora to humiliate the Gun Club at the Pop Shop, they cemented their reputation as Cleveland’s biggest buzz. The momentum was almost dizzying. They knew it was time to record their LP.


Jim Jones had health issues. His heart had been troubling him since before the Easter Monkeys’ inception. Though he didn’t partake in booze and drugs with the same youthful gusto as his bandmates, his condition deteriorated as the unit moved along. It was if the grind of playing alone wore him down. He occasionally had to bow out of the band to recuperate.

Says Yarmock: “Jimmy quit a couple times here and there. We ignored him. We wouldn’t let him. He would say, ‘You’d be better off with me,’ and all this nonsense, and we’d just say, ‘No, we wouldn’t.’”

Yarmock and the rest of the Monkeys managed to keep Jones in the fold long enough to enter Soundstage 25 in March of ’83. There, they began recording their full-length record with engineer Charlie Watts.

The band knew they would have to maintain a sharper focus in the studio. They were used to playing with a sense of improvisation, but with the tape rolling, they were forced to reign in some of their extemporaneous tendencies. It would be difficult to capture their dynamic sound within the limits and constraints of the studio. Indeed, they had never fully mapped out most of their songs; to a large extent, they relied on premonitions, nods and extra-sensory chemistry to stitch together some of their loosest moments. The sessions at Soundstage 25 would force the quartet to bring a comparably staunch structure to tunes that never really had one.

Confident nonetheless, the foursome played with verve, charging headlong into their catalog. There were only minor setbacks.

As the drummer, Hudson had possibly the most difficult task of driving some of the band’s longer songs, and making her way through the particularly epic “Nailed to the Cross” proved to be downright impossible. Even after downing a six-pack and taking her fair share of speed, she had to pause partway through the eight-and-a-half minutes of free-form punk due to the sheer exhaustion of playing.

“My arms gave out,” she says. “So Jones kept playing -- they all kept playing and doing their thing -- and I started back up again.” Hudson’s negligible gaffe sounded almost intentional in the context of the song, and it was nearly unnoticed once “fixed” in the final mix-down. (Incidentally, her performance on "Nailed to the Cross" -- and the sessions in general -- remains tastefully simple and powerful.)

Ditteaux’s bass sound would suffer an unfortunate loss, as his usual instrument was scrapped in favor of a replacement. His signature treble-tough tone was painfully absent in the recording.

“His bass was in a repair shop at the time for some reason or another,” Yarmock recalls. “He brought in this other fuckin’ stupid bass -- one of those Paul McCartney violin-shaped things, if I remember it right, and it didn’t have the right sound.”

Regardless, Ditteaux maintained a fine low-end rumble. He also contributed his self-penned tune, the Cramps-like “My Baby Digs Graves,” wherein he supplants Yarmock’s low growl with his own timorous vocal, more than a little reminiscent of Richard Hell. (Jones and Yarmock handled bass and guitar, respectively.)

Of the remaining six songs the band committed to tape, Yarmock in particular shined on the glowering post-punk self-elegy of “Heaven 357.” “We’re all gonna get to heaven,” he repeats sardonically, adding “I’ll pull back the trigger with you” as Jones and Ditteaux deliver a haunting background vocal. Another bright Yarmock moment is the pugilistic “Take Another Pill,” wherein his gruff vocal provides a stark commentary on vacuous urban living. Never one to take himself too seriously, he also penned near-nonsense lyrics to a funny little tune he named “Underpants.”

Jones lends a shimmering, spectral jangle to the aforementioned “Heaven 357,” and his metallic riff on “Take Another Pill” is unshakable. Even when playing economically, as is the case on the frantic “Monkey See, Monkey Do," he manages to wring out a turbulent din. His guitar sound remains the trump card of a stacked deck.

By August of that year, they had committed eight songs to tape. They wrapped, and Jones, Ditteaux and Watts immediately mixed the songs down over the next two days.


Shortly after they finished the Splendor of Sorrow sessions, Jones’s health took a nasty turn. He was, once again, forced to bow out and recuperate, this time for the better part of a year.

“Jim’s always had heart problems,” says Yarmock. “They were serious. We were roommates at the time, and he was out of commission for about nine months. So whatever momentum we’d built up was just gone.”

With Jones out of the picture, the band was on indefinite hiatus.

He gradually recovered, and the band did what they could to pick up where they left off. But the Monkeys were, by then, preoccupied with their own endeavors: Yarmock with his art, Hudson with life beyond high school, and Ditteaux with life in general. The shows were fewer and farther between, and the band had done little to advance by way of songwriting. They hadn’t worked up a new tune since the last year or so. In fact, they had written most of their songs in the first two years of their existence, and there were new leads on the horizon.

They stagnated. Continuing proved impossible.

“I don’t even know what happened, or why we quit playing,” Yarmock comments. “It could’ve been me… I could’ve just walked away and just said, ‘Fuck it. We’re getting too slick, I think.’ It just wasn’t happening anymore.”

As Hudson remembers it, “The practices got to be very boring, and we didn’t laugh anymore. It was just time to end it. We weren’t productive. Charlie was moving around a lot. We were all having problems -- switching jobs, this and that, whatever -- and it just fizzled.”

It was ’84 when it all dissipated.

Just as the band gradually parted ways, so, too, did the LP gradually fall by the wayside.


The Easter Monkeys and Hit & Run Records released the Splendor of Sorrow LP in 1991, just eight years after it was recorded. It contained the eight studio tracks from the Soundstage 25 sessions, and one live tune -- “Watchoo Wan?” -- culled from a recording of their show with the Gun Club. It also included Yarmock’s smirking “Porky Pig” comment.

Much happened in the interim.

Jones joined Pere Ubu on guitar. He toured extensively. When he wasn’t touring, he rested at home. He rarely touched his guitar. His health was, for the moment, OK.

Ditteaux joined Knife Dance with another Cleveland fixture, Tommy Dark. He got married a couple times.

Hudson moved to Tennessee, where she became involved in theatre.

Yarmock continued to work on his art and began playing with Sherman and Lupico again. It was, for all intents and purposes, the Kneecappers with a different body behind the kit.

Splendor of Sorrow was received quite well by those who heard it. But nearly ten years too late, it was seen as a “vault rarity” for those who never caught the band in a live setting. It also suffered poor distribution, and word didn’t spread as it should have.

Thankfully, Chicago’s Smog Veil Records recently reissued the LP as an expanded CD/DVD package. The latest edition serves up some unreleased nuggets that hint at what could’ve been an excellent second album. Live recordings of “Newspaper Mouth” and “Splendor of Sorrow” -- a tune that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it to the LP of the same name -- are particularly great. On the former track, you can actually hear Yarmock fill his yawp with bits of newspaper as he tries to bark “You ain’t nothin’ but a newspaper mouth!” atop a menacing Jones riff. On the latter, Jones’s guitar switches effortlessly from an ethereal post-punk glow to a belly-level rumble, and Yarmock delivers the most profound of all E. Monkey messages: "I see the splendor/I see the sorrow/They masquerade as each other." Ditteaux and Hudson carry it all with aplomb.

Yarmock contends that the accompanying DVD of live footage -- taken from their show with X at the Agora -- is “too slick.” (“Why couldn’t they have taped a good show?” he laments.) And though the band operates on what he cites as “good behavior,” the DVD provides a clear look at how they generally functioned as a unit, and the sound and video are of high-quality. Linda Hudson’s no-frills/all-kills drumming is especially impressive here, as is Ditteaux’s bass, which sounds eerily similar to Australian bands of the same era, like X and feedtime -- something that was lost in the process of recording their LP. Yarmock’s vocals and sax are in full form, too, and I may be reaching when I mention there’s more than a little David Thomas in his delivery.


Sadly, Jim Jones passed away on February 19, 2008, due to a heart attack. He was 57 years old.

His legacy is held by many, but most dearly by those who knew him in Cleveland.

“Jim was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet,” recalls Yarmock. He remembers seeing Jim at those early Ubu shows, when there were all of seven paying customers milling about the Cove -- when Cleveland was his for the taking.


A heartfelt thanks to Chris Yarmock, Linda Hudson and Mark Tidrick for their time, help and patience.

Do yourself a favor and get the expanded edition of
Splendor of Sorrow here.

For you hunter/gatherers, I highly suggest the Kneecappers' posthumously-released
Urban Kill LP.

And, last but not least, for a great snapshot of Cleveland-circa-'81 -- and an all-around killer LP -- you could do much worse than the fantastic
Cleveland Confidential compilation. GET IT.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Knots: Joey Pinter and the 11k "Heartbreaker"

If you're thinking of contacting Joey Pinter to score an original copy of the Knots' elusive "Heartbreaker"/"Action" 45, don't bother. There's nary a single in his apartment -- not even a sleeveless banged-up keepsake in the ol' pantry. In fact, until a year or two ago, when Japan's 1977 Records negotiated the reissue of the single, he'd nearly forgotten it existed. And as the guy who penned and played on both tunes, he's surprised that it recently fetched as much as $700 on eBay.

"Seven hundred? You sure?"

Sure I'm sure.

"Well, who do I send the bill to?" he jokes.

Oh, that: I'm unsure. I'm also unsure why such a whip/snap of a punk single with assumed major label ties has so few surviving copies circulating today. And that's why I rang him. How many of those were pressed, anyway?

"That's a funny story." As he relates the funny story, the smirk's crawling through the line and kicking its feet up in my living room.


His funny story is presaged by many others. Pinter's a great yarnspinner, really; Brooklyn-born and Queens-raised, he's amiable, friendly and comically brusque. And, yes, he's been around: Weaned on the usual suspects (Bowie, Bolan, Stones) as a kid, his teen r'n'r years were tempered by home-turf heroes like the Dolls, who, due to age and timing, he never saw.

But as a teen, he did patronize Max's Kansas City with his first band, Brooklyn Trash. He'd joined them around '73 or '74, aged 18 or 19. They accepted him unceremoniously after he answered an open ad for a guitarist in the Village Voice.

“They said, ‘What comes first -- your girlfriend or the band?’” Pinter recalls. “I said, ‘The band, of course.’ And they said, ‘OK, you can sleep over there.’ And they threw a mattress down in a corner.”

He slept over there on the mattress in the corner for as long as it took them to work up a set consisting largely of Dolls and Stones covers. The Stones were a given. But the Dolls were more of a fixture than anything else. Home is home, after all.

Sometimes you have to leave home. For reasons unexplained, Brooklyn Trash high-tailed it to Ft. Meyers, FL, where they rechristened themselves the Dogs, harangued locals and started (and sometimes finished) bar fights with the local rednecks who were none too pleased to find their girlfriends cavorting with these flamboyant, tough-talking city boys.

So there were myriad uphill battles. Florida wasn't ready for post-glam start-ups in eyeliner and blue hair, ne'er-do-wells intent on pursuing whatever passed for the r'n'r trajectory at the time. And the violence of the bar fight soon overshadowed the feel of the band. It got tense. From the outset, the Dogs were slightly tyrannical over Pinter. They had restricted his listening diet to Stones/Kinks/Dolls ONLY as soon as they arrived in Florida. They allowed Bowie, too. "Ronson was a big influence, but they kind of beat it into me," Pinter laughs.

"Well, they were smart," he continues. "They were trying to get me to play within my abilities." Which he did -- on the Les Paul, Jr., he'd purchased just before leaving Brooklyn, directly after seeing Mott the Hoople's Ariel Bender slinging one in Radio City.

But Florida -- there was no Radio City in Florida. The weather sucked. The locals didn't get it. The Dogs were controlling. As time wore on, they continued to loom over the younger Pinter. At one point, they assigned him the task of reading J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings triology and regularly quizzed his knowledge on the subject at hand.

"They would ask me questions… 'So when Frodo went to Mount Doom…?' They were completely nuts."

Tensions ran tenser. Enough was enough. The Dogs went tits-up. And Pinter went up the map -- back to NYC, back home.


"He was the loudest drummer I've ever heard in my life. I thought, 'Wow, this guy's an animal!'" So says Pinter about Niki Fuse.

The two met through another Voice ad almost directly upon Pinter's return to NYC. Their immediate chemistry incontestable, they decided to form a new unit. They comprised one half of the aptly-named Fuse.

Fuse rounded out its line-up with vocalist Tommy Bell -- "the first real straight-up dope addict I ever knew," Pinter says -- and a carousel of forgotten bassists. They practiced in what is now known as the Flatiron District of Manhattan, near Broadway and 20th, when the sweatshops below their loft had vacated for the evening. Their sound, according to Pinter, wasn't necessarily punk, but "high energy rock 'n' roll."

"I wanted to be the band that played on stage, that when you were in the club, you had no choice but to watch," he commented. "There was no talking to your girlfriend, there was no playing Pac-Man, there was no hanging out with your buddies. You could do that outside. If you were in the room with us, you got us."

After gigging around for a bit and gathering a stitch of momentum -- now as the mid-'70s gave way to audiences ready for newer noise -- Fuse changed its name to the Knots.

The Knots made an earnest go of it. This wasn't Brooklyn Trash or the Dogs. There were covers, sure, but the originals outweighed the tributes early on. They wasted little time making way to the stage at Max's. And CBGB's, "before Hilly had a P.A. We would get the middle-of-the-week gig all the time because we had a PA." It was in these clubs that the band began to attract the attention of local scene fixtures, like Peter Crowley, the influential tastemaker who booked the entertainment at Max's, and Eric Dufaure, an employee of Island Records who had just incorporated his own Whale Productions.

Dufaure made no bones that he liked the band. He liked them so much that he offered to record and release a Knots single on his own dime. They agreed.


If you've heard the "Heartbreaker"/"Action" single, you'll know that it's equal parts U.S. brawn (Dolls, Heartbreakers) and U.K. sneer (early Boomtown Rats), one of the sturdiest obscurant punk rock EPs loitering in the late-'70s/early-'80s bin. More than one garage-punk outfit paid tribute to "Action" in the '90s. And "Heartbreaker," the standout side, is probably as hooky as punk gets before it goes pop. It's a perfect 45.

The single sessions were less than perfect. Despite complications, they nearly went off without a hitch. Pinter had excused Niki Fuse due to in-fighting just before recording, replacing him with a temporary fill-in -- who could've possibly been Jerry Ryan, also a drum fixture with the Fuse and Knots -- a decision he still regrets. As for bass duties, Joey and Tommy had similarly excused a bassist simply identified as Tony, who had previously played with Wayne County. According to Pinter, he himself filled in the missing bass: "The bass player at the time was just so obnoxious, we didn’t even let him record. We just said, 'You’re not gonna do this,' because he was just so annoying. So I did it."

The Knots were ostensibly comprised of two original members and two scabs. The cover, much like the bubblegum hoodwink of multiple '60s pop albums, was somewhat deceptive. "Of the four guys on the cover... Let's just say Tommy and I were the only ones who actually played on the record," explained Pinter.

Nonetheless, they made it work. Pinter, Bell and two replacements convened at Neal Steingart's Fly Studios in Brooklyn. They recorded, by Pinter's estimation, a total of five or six songs: the two that made it to the single, and others plainly titled "Rock 'n' Roll," "New York" and "Blinded by the Darkness." They also covered the Stones' "Live With Me."

Once they wrapped, the band, beers in hand, met with Dufaure at Fly to survey their handiwork. It was then that they heard the synthesizer opening "Heartbreaker." They also heard the "street crime" sound effects dubbed over the ending of "Action." Dufaure had added these in post-production.

"We’re in there and this synthesizer comes on," laughs Pinter. "I said, 'What is that?' [Dufaure] goes, 'Ain’t it great? Ain’t it great?' I said, 'Well, I don’t know. It’s kinda weird…' And the other guys were mad. They didn’t want it at all. They were flipping out. They thought it was bullshit."

But on Dufaure's dime, the band had no choice. They relented; the synth and sound effects remained. It adds a decidedly new wave sound to an otherwise street-level record. And still bugs Pinter to this day.


After Dufaure decided the record was ready for press, he brought a name to Whale Productions' new label, Ideal Records, and rang the pressing plant to begin production on the vinyl. And herein lies Pinters funny story.

Dufaure accidentally pressed 11,000 copies of the 45. He'd intended to press 1,000, but through an unfortunate clerical error on part of the pressing plant... 11,000. A 10k overage.

Pinter recalls: "[Dufaure] was originally going to press 2,000. Then he changed his mind in mid-conversation [with the pressing plant] and said, 'Nah, give me 1,000.' So what happened was the person writing up the invoice put a slash through the two and put a one down. Now, by the time it got to the printing person -- maybe three carbons later -- it looked like an 11. So when the UPS guy or whoever the hell it was showed up -- Eric was living on Mercer Street -- and the guy shows up and says, 'Hey, I’m gonna need ya to help me with this stuff.' And Eric says, 'What are you talking about? It should be one or two boxes.' And the guy says, 'I’ve got about half a truck here.'”

Beyond that, Pinter remembers Dufaure arguing with the plant, but ultimately keeping the entire press, and the plant "charg[ed] him for the original 2,000. And I guess they ate the rest of it. I mean, they didn’t want it back. What were they going to do with it?" The overage, says Pinter, remained in Dufaure's possession. And that's as much as he knows about it.

As most folks familiar with artists who've recorded short-run bygone punk singles will tell you, there's a tendency for some of these musicians to exaggerate popularity and demand, to confuse near-misses with scoffed-at successes, to trade never-weres or coulda-beens for most-likelies or definitelies. And while Pinter did not grandstand throughout my many conversations with him, and all of his stories checked out, this one was too bizzarre. So I contacted Eric Dufaure.

Dufaure doesn't remember the exact chain of events that yielded the Knots 45. After all, he's busied himself with releasing several records over the span of several years. In addition to the Knots single, he worked alongside Chris Blackwell as the MD of Island Artists, and he also manned other labels, like Cachalot Records, whose roster included Ian North (ex-Milk 'n' Cookies), Thomas Leer, Malaria and Medium Medium, to name but a few. He also produced sessions for Brooklyn's Just Water and an unreleased session for Boston's Neighborhoods. So just as time may blur the realities with the desires intrinsic to scarce 30-year-old punk records, so too has it blurred the recording and pressing details of those records.

However, Eric Dufaure concedes that Pinter's story is possible, if not probable.

"I don't have direct recollection of the overpressing story," he commented by e-mail, "But these things do happen."

Assuming Pinter's story checks out, what happened to the remainder of the singles?

"We probably asked for 1,000 to be pressed, and if we received 11,000, I would think we would have returned them to the pressing plant, claiming an administrative error, rather than taking delivery of the lot, paying for them (unless the plant said 'don't pay, but take them anyway'!) and storing them in the loft on Mercer Street, where my offices were at the time. But the loft was huge, so there was space."

"But I think I would remember if we had ditched them in the Hudson river!" he added.

So, there you have it: uncertaintity. Ten thousand unaccounted-for Knots 45s.

Imagine the implications of the $700 tag now.


After the single's release in 1980, the Knots' forward momentum increased exponentially. Peter Crowley stuck the single in a coveted slot on Max's jukebox. Local stores like Bleeker Bob's sold out multiple copies. In Lower Manhattan's club circuit, they shared bills with now-legendary outfits like the Tuff Darts, the Planets, the Fast, Von LMO and many more. The band also arranged a few out-of-town gigs as far west as Detroit with Johnny Thunders, where they were received, despite complications stemming from Johnny's obvious addictions, fairly well.

Joey himself had also achieved local popularity. Manhattan-based avant violinist weirdo Walter Steding pulled Pinter in as guitarist on his hysteric LP sessions, produced by Blondie's Chris Stein and released on Marty Thau's Red Star Records. As Pinter entered the studio to lay down his tracks for the Steding sessions, "Chris hands me a bottle of gin and a Telecaster. He says, 'This is a blues drink.' I took it and said, “What do you want me to play?” He says, “Whatever you want.”

An avant record on a larger independent label. He loathed artistically-minded bands like the Talking Heads, but he'd come a long way since his no-frills, Dolls-obsessed days. So far, in fact, that Pinter had the privilege of later being booted from the stage at CBGB's during a show with Steding -- "Because we sucked," he says gravely.

The Knots were enjoying local popularity by anyone's standards. But problems were evident. Baggage seemed to gather conspicuously at the feet of Bell, who bristled the likes of anyone attempting to do business with the band. The Knots' managers were reluctant to get involved with a provocative singer who lived his lyrics.

"[M]anagement really didn’t like the singer," Pinter said. "[Bell] was a criminal, quite frankly. He would break into places and steal stuff. He’d always show up with something -- a new guitar, a stereo, TV… He was a real felonious character. No one trusted him. And the people who managed us were in the beauty business -- hair people -- and there was a lot of money there, and they didn’t like this guy because they couldn’t trust him."

Likewise for labels courting the band. Seymour Stein of Sire Records eventually took an interest in the Knots, specifically focusing on Pinter and his approach to punk-qua-r'n'r. There again, he wasn't interested in dealing with Bell's shady ways.

"We almost got signed to Sire, back when Seymour Stein was signing everybody. We didn’t get signed because of a few reasons. Number one, he didn’t like the singer. Seymour was also telling me that I was drinking too much and was inconsistent."

Stein brought Pinter under his wing, recommending mind-expanding vinyl to his would-be pupil -- early Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green LPs were all but shoved his arms in Stein's brownstone one afternoon. He also tried to coach Pinter on his drinking. Even still, Joey refused to axe Tommy Bell.

"Seymour just didn’t like the singer. We did some tapes for him -- they had a little studio in the building -- and he said, 'We’ll sign you right now, but you gotta get rid of that singer.' I was confused and didn’t have the balls to do what I was supposed to do. So we lost it. He didn’t pick us up."

The Knots soldiered on a short while longer, plagued by increasingly dwindling momentum and lack of national success and radio play. These setbacks essentially spelled the end of the band.


Post-Knots, Pinter continued to play music with original combos like the Lost Hats. He also later auditioned to play with Johnny Thunders's band, but regrettably allowed himself to imbibe in Johnny's favored vices. He tried to keep up -- "Johnny was like an athelete with that stuff," says Pinter -- but couldn't. The partnership didn't last.

Much later, in the '90s, he joined up with former Heartbreaker Walter Lure's band, the Waldos, whom he still occasionally plays with today.

He currently resides in the L.A. area and remains musically active.

Eric Dufaure continued to work with musicians after moving to Paris, where he ran the area's branch of EMI Music Publishing and worked with Sacem, the French authors' rights society. In 2001, he took up the Beluga Records label and is still releasing records to this day.


A hearty thanks to Joey Pinter and Eric Dufaure for their patience and time. To hear the Knots' lone vinyl contribution, visit the Killed by Death blog and download the fantastic "Heartbreaker" b/w "Action" single. I also encourage anyone with the time or money to track down the recent reissue on Japan's 1977 Records. You can see what Dufaure's up to at www.belugaprod.com.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Quick One: Billy Synth

Every "shambling" post-college indie-popster's peppering his tunes w/ keys these days, but I can't say any of those Tom/Dick/Harrys possesses the swingin' nutbar necessary to being a Billy.

Billy "Starboy" Synth's been mashing keys & smearing horny synthstatic 'cross unsuspecting ugly mugs since the late '70s/early '80s.  Sure, lotsa folks were doing same in NYC's no-wave commune way back when, but Billy's provenance of Harrisburg, PA might as well've been ten planets removed from Max's or CB's.  (And if yer Billy, it probably is.)

'Sides, BS's discog (see below) dwarfs that of most of his contempos...  Not to mention his manic onstage onslaught (again, below).  And did Rev or Vega have the exhaustive knowledge of '60s psych anyone'd need to curate those legendary Psychedelic Unknown comps?  You tell me.  Or let BS tell ya himself...

Eric/Attacking the Beat: How and when did you first start writing, recording and playing music under the name of Billy Synth?

Billy Synth: When I bought my Arp Odyssey synthesizer.  We first had a group called Blue Ice, and we recorded one 45.  Then, when "new wave" came along, I liked it and left Blue Ice to form a more punk-like band, the Janitors.  That didn't last long, really, even though we did release a few EPs...  After a year or so, I got back together with Blue Ice (with new drummer Joe Gear).  They had already "gone punk" themselves and changed their name to the Turn Ups, so it was all-cool again.  When we recorded our first LP, it was like Stevinyl-guitar, Billy-synth, etc., and that's how I got the name.

ATB: Were you always playing toward punk/psych/new wave sounds, or did you begin with more conventional ideas?  

BS: Actually, we began as an early '70s "classic" rock band, because we were hippies and that's what we grew up with.

ATB: How did you connect with the Janitors?

BS: I eventually left Blue Ice because I liked the new wave scene and wanted a strictly punk-oriented band.  I hooked up with Bernie, the original "punk rock janitor" (yes, he was in another punk group AND a janitor!), another friend, Mikearama, and Dave Tritt on drums, who later joined Rat At Rat R.

ATB: What were early shows with you and the Janitors like?

BS: To be honest, I can't remember any official shows with the Janitors, except a party for a friend.  We only played in Bernie's basement.

ATB: What sort of opposition did you face as an other-worldly synthpunk band playing in Harrisburg, PA?  

BS: Well, there really was no opposition.  I was just so strange that they had to see!

ATB: What was the scene like at the time?

BS: There were actually quite a few "new wave/punk"-type bands around here then.  We played shows with groups such as the Sharks, the Late Teens, Reesa & the Rooters (Philly) and the Slickee Boys (DC).  There were a few nice venues to play, such as the Metron, Rumpelstiltskins, the Landing...  Also, an annual pig roast!

ATB: Can you provide some background on those videos that were recently posted on YouTube?  

BS: Those clips were from a show that we did with Reesa & the Rooters at the Metron in Harrisburg.  I guess it was early '80s...  That was a wild night.  I was all fucked-up on some kinda drugs!  Neal, our guitar player, worked for ABC News (he still does), and it was actually filmed by a few of his co-workers/friends from there!  They also helped us do the video of "I'm So Sick of It," also on YouTube.  That one was shot at an old movie theatre.  I'm trying to get the guy to submit more of the live Metron show, and we got LOTS of other videos, also!

ATB: What precipitated your collaboration with Jad & David Fair for the 45 on Sordide Sentimental?  Any stories from that recording session?

BS: I can't remember how we first connected, but Bernie & I from the Janitors went down to see Half Japanese with our instruments, and when we got there, we just started playing.  I mean, it was 1, 2, 3, 4, and we all started playing ANYTHING.  No rehearsal, no NOTHING!  That's how it came out.  Sooo strange!

ATB: What made you decide to start compiling the Psychedelic Unknowns series?

BS: I used to see those commercials on TV advertising these boring, over-played compilation of hits, and I thought it would be cool to make a comp of ultra-obscure 45s!  I made it happen and everyone loved it, so I continued with the series.

ATB: How did you feel about the way keyboards were ultimately adopted as a main ingredient of mainstream "new wave" pop-rock in the '80s?  

BS: It SUCKED!  It was crap like A Flock of Seagulls, later Joy Division, and 100s of others.

ATB: What's your take on modern music?  Any bands ringing your bell these days?

BS: I do like some "modern music."  I like stuff  like Jenifer McKitrick, Krezip, the Sounds, KK and the like...  Google their names and take a listen!

Selected & Abbreviated Discography
*Blue Ice - "Power Play" b/w "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night" 7"
*Billy Synth & the Janitors - "Everytime You Give Me a Call" + 3 EP
*Billy Synth - "Off the Deep End" + 3 EP (on yellow vinyl)
*Billy Synth - "Everytime You Give Me a Call" from 30 Seconds Over DC compilation
*Billy Synth - "State of Confusion" + 6 EP
*Billy Synth w/ Half Japanese - EP on Sordide Sentimental
*Billy Synth & the Turn Ups - Off the Deep End LP
*Billy Synth & the Turn Ups - Disorderly Conduct LP
*The Ketamine Millipeeds - appearance on compilation issued by Inner Mystique Magazine
*Billy Synth - Remastered version of "State of Confusion" on 12" EP
*Billy Synth & the Turn Ups - "I Dig Your Mind" from Battle of the Garages #1 compilation
*Billy Synth & the Turn Ups - "The Mask" from Bona Fide Records compilation
*The Windowpaynes - "Green Slime" b/w "Planet of the Apes" 7" (Get Hip Records)
*The Windowpaynes - "Lost Friend" b/w "Bonzai Pipedream" 7" (Get Hip Records)
*The Windowpaynes - "Off the Deep End" + 3 (DIG Records)
*Starboy - 8 different CDs...
*Plus compiled MANY comps, such as Psychedelic Unknowns, Psychosis from the 13th Dimension, Acid & Flowers, Growing Slowly Insane, Surftime on LBI, Marijuana Unknowns, Strange Unknowns, Songs of Faith & Inspiration (psych), The Soulville/Jaywalking Records Story (Harrisburg soul/funk comp on Get Hip Records) and many others!

Watch Billy Synth & the Turnups tumble through the call-to-armsy "I'm So Sick of It" here:

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Interview: Tom Huckabee of the Huns

Austin, TX's first-wave punk wunderkinds the Huns were all pissy vinegar -- probably the most pointlessly incendiary band of their scene. For fleeting moments, their playful malevolence was galvanized as much by an odd pop-art sensibility as it was the bratty desire to anger & alienate & etc. See: "Busy Kids."

First and foremost, though, they were shit disturbers, troublemakers, loonies. Their path of destruction is well documented here. Can you imagine the riot that would've ensued after some young ne'er do well kissed an arresting officer in late-'70s Texas? I can't.

Contributor Theresa Smith recently accompanied drummer/instigator Tom Huckabee for a limp down Memory Ln., both whistling "Eat Death Scum" as they tiptoed through the tulips.

Theresa Smith/Attacking the Beat: I’ve heard it said that the first wave of Austin punk bands often seemed to be performing with a “sidelong glance” at London and New York. Did that ring true for The Huns?

Tom Huckabee: I agree with that. Reading magazines like New York Rocker, Punk, and NME, seeing clips of the bands and attending shows in NYC and London, and of course listening to records and studying record jackets. That’s how we learned the basics, the rules, i.e. fast, loud and short. Torn clothes. Spiked hair. Safety pins. Skinny ties. The pogo. At the same time, Devo, Pere Ubu and Iggy Pop were huge influences. The Midwest DIY aesthetic.

ATB: That scenario seems to apply pretty universally to punk scenes in smaller towns: looking towards the epicenters of new wave and punk, but at the same time being aware of the distance, real and ideological, between themselves and the music being made in larger cities. In cities like Austin (Bloomington and the Jersey shore as well), this distance fosters a special kind of detachment and critical stance that gives rise to a breed of music, sonically distinct from New York or London punk, that looks askance at the “seriousness” of these scenes and answers the call to produce something revolutionary with three chords and a smirk. The Huns are a prime example of this tendency, as are the Dicks, Big Boys, Stains, etc.

TH: It was in songwriting and performance that we couldn’t help but be different than our influences. We were never a cover band. We weren’t good enough to musicians. But even if we had been, we would have concentrated on original material. Being “different” was extremely important. Before the Huns ever had an official practice session, when we were still a poster band, we were intent on standing out amongst the local bands and for that matter internationally. We were very ambitious, both creatively and careerwise.

When I first started writing songs for the Huns, at least for myself, most of my ideas came from poems I had written when I was a teenager in the early seventies, lyrics that had been influenced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, horror films, acid, religion, school, family dysfunction, politics, sexual identity, Texas identity.

ATB: When the Texas punk “scene” began to solidify in the late '70s, many of the bands either identified punk with performance art - influenced by what was coming out of New York - or with social commentary, influenced by UK ‘77 stuff. Some bands, like AK-47, embraced politics and eschewed image. Bands like the Dicks combined both spectacle and substance. The Huns' take on punk seemed to be one of pure spectacle and planned antagonism. What influenced this approach, and to what extent do you think it defined the Huns?

TH: I think there was substance to the Huns, especially in the beginning, before we replaced guitarist Manny Rossario with John Burton, but it got overshadowed by spectacle. Many of our songs were quite provocative on different levels. I’m thinking of “Legalize Crime,” “Murder in Texas,” “I'm Glad He’s Dead,” “Busy Kids,” “Forgotten Graves,” “Beautiful Black Men,” “Police State,” “Violence,” “Kill All Men,” “The Universe is Full of Noise,” etc.

ATB: As much as punk espoused iconoclasm (at least on its surface), the scene was more than willing to venerate its own. Would you say that the Huns’ music and performances were in any way a reaction against this tendency?

TH: We were aware of this. We encouraged it and mocked it at the same time with songs like “Busy Kids,” “The Huns are God,” “We’re Not the Huns,” and “Kill All Men” which contained the line “Kill the Huns.” Before our first live show, we decided to dress, not as “punks,” but as “frats,” slicking our hair down, wearing Izods and slacks. We prepared a super slow song, as well as a parody of local punk heroes, The Skunks. We believed to be truly “punk,” we would have to insult our friends and ourselves as much as outsiders. Since, our crowd was largely made up of college students studying semiotics, a lot of them understood what we were up to and encouraged us.

ATB: I assume the Red Krayola were a big influence on the next wave of Austin punk - all that cacophonous experimentation had to count for something, after all. Were the people involved in punk bands actually listening to any of that sixties TX stuff - Red Krayola, the Elevators, the International Artists roster?

TH: Yes, the Huns knew about Red Krayola and especially the Elevators. Roky was a big influence and I became his valet in 1979 for a few months, while he was sitting in with my other band, the Reversible Cords [Re*Cords]. Everybody had Roky’s EP with "Two Headed Dog" and Nuggets, Lenny Kaye’s compilation of garage rock of the sixties. Dan Puckett and Phil Tolstead were rock musicologists with esoteric tastes and wrote erudite reviews for Sluggo under nom de plumes. My own musical influences were less obscure, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, David Bowie, The Doors, even The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Patti Smith, Captain Beefheart and Cab Calloway were about as far as I ventured into the fringe, at least until right before joining the Huns when a tsunami of new music hit the college crowd, at which time I discovered the joys of the Velvet Underground, Iggy, Roxy Music, Ramones, Throbbing Gristle, Devo, Sex Pistols. X-Ray Spex, Television, Roky Erickson, Talking Heads, Blondie, the Modern Lovers, Dead Boys, etc. My avant-garde interests were more in the areas of fine art, performance art, written word and film: William Burroughs, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Yoko Ono, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, etc.

ATB: The Huns were more or less college-age when you began playing shows. How old was the typical attendee at these shows? College-age? Older? When would you say there began to be a legitimate punk “community” in Austin as opposed to the loose network of people who played and attended punk shows?

TH: I was 23. Phil was 21, I think. Manny may have been 25. That was the range. Typical attendee was 18 – 30. I think the punk community you’re speaking of came to critical mass in 1981 – 1985, right after I left town, with the Dicks and the Big Boys as the main bands and boosters. This dovetailed with the Butthole Surfers moving to Austin, taking it to an international level. This was when the average skateboarder and disaffected teenager embraced punk. It no longer needed the transient and fickle intellectual college crowd to keep it afloat.

ATB: What were you listening to or playing before The Huns?

TH: Lots of Doors! Because I was making a film called “The Death of Jim Morrison.” Bob Marley. Captain Beefheart. Talking Heads and Television because I had a friend who worked for Sire Records. Blondie. Bowie. Patti Smith. Roxy Music.

ATB: How did you react to people who didn’t seem to understand the “theatrical” aspect of Huns shows or the tongue-in-cheek nature of the lyrical matter?

TH: I don’t remember many people not getting our theatrical side. Even my older brother, a bluegrass virtuoso and purist who disdained most electrified music, loved to come to our shows for the drama and spectacle. The harshest critiques of the Huns were about musical ability and lack of interest in improving. The first accusation was true, the second was not. Also, don’t forget about us being assholes. Otherwise, we were not underappreciated, as practically every performance was actually reviewed in the local papers, indeed we were treated to more press attention than the average touring act. There was, I’m sure, a rarefied group of Austin town burghers and puritans who were offended by our blasphemous, androgynous, anarchist gestures. Phil would have gotten off scoff-free at his trial had he not alienated the super liberal judge by spouting neo fascist, anti-hippie vitriol.

ATB: As liberal as Austin itself was and is, Texas is still a conservative stronghold, and even young people must have felt the pull of conservative influence.

TH: You’re talking about pre-Bush, pre-AIDS Austin, one of the most liberal towns in the country. One of the reasons that Phil and Dan affected faux-Nazi garb and lyrics, naming the band The Huns, writing “Glad He’s Dead,” copying the Pistols' "Belsen was a Gas" was to shock the liberal bourgeoisie. There was a large contingent of Frats who took anti punk stances, but nothing like the anti hippie aggression of the prior decade. Something that was discussed a lot in my circle was whether we had the same right to hate society that English kids did. Maybe that’s why Austin punk took such an ironic tone early on. We were terribly self aware of our posing and cultural theft… not to mention greedy for fame, fortune and sex, as well as an audience for our “art.”

ATB: Were you surprised that people seemed to follow in the Huns’ footsteps by forming their own bands in the wake of 1978?

TH: Certainly not surprised after our first show garnered front page news around Texas and got into Rolling Stone and NME. Your average college student, buried in a town of 40,000 students, longed for anyway to stand out. Cutting your hair and yelling at people from the stage seemed like quite a cheap lottery ticket for this.

Also, for any young musician, trying to score a decent gig in the locked-down Austin live scene, it was a Godsend. Excellent musicians who couldn’t stand punk, joined punk bands for that reason alone.

ATB: How much influence do you think the Huns had on bands like the Dicks or Big Boys, who also had an element of spectacle to their stage shows?

TH: I think we had a great deal of influence. Biscuit Turner was an acquaintance of mine prior to the punk scene who came to all of our early shows. I’m fairly sure we gave the Big Boys that debut opening for us. Biscuit had always been a very theatrical person, ever-present on the Austin Streets at Carnivale and Halloween. But he found a new and large audience at Huns gigs to show off his costuming and dancing ability. I remember well seeing all the members of the Dicks at just about all of our shows. Gary Floyd was a good friend to all of us. We did everything we could to encourage him to make the leap from “poster band” to “real band.” I don’t know if we gave them their debut. I hope we did.

Once again, Gary didn’t need much encouragement to be as provocative as possible on stage, but I’m sure he found great enjoyment and esprit de corps at our shows. The explicit homosexuality of his lyrics were an innovation in Austin punk, I think. We, the Huns, had flirted with sexual perversity in songs like “Beautiful Black Men,” but it was always along the lines of David Bowie, rather than Tom Robinson or Wayne County.


Shit disturbers disturbing shit; troublemakers making trouble:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Quick One: Jeff Murphy of the Shoes

I'll say it: The Shoes are the Greatest American Power-Pop Band.

And, yeah,
are -- they still play out. Infrequently, but no less splendidly.

Was lucky enough to catch one of their rare live appearances at Chicago's Millennium Park one summer aft in '07. Their set, dominated by selections from their Elektra catalog, might've been the purest offering of pop I'd seen in the years leading up to it. Certainly the purest I've seen since.

The band was great, of course, simultaneously conjuring up the warm fuzz of the recorded output on one hand and, on the other, assuaging any fears about seeing an aging group that'd once banked on aw-shucks teenisms. But, lo, they nailed it. Not surprisingly, the salient force of the day was the radiant vocal performance: Three-part honeyed harmonies that seemed to swoop outta clouds or sky. Could vox that yootful really flow forth from those older gents, them mere mortals on stage proper? They sounded just as toothsome & modestly crushing as they did on those classic records that'd been self-released some 30 twelvemonths hence. The mawkish, gawrsh-I-likes-ya innocence of
One in Versailles, Bazooka, Black Vinyl Shoes -- fully intact! Tender yet tough, fawning yet firm, they could still call upon the core quintessence of the Midwestern shy-guy aesthetic as celebrated in tunes like "Too Late" and "When It Hits." They proved why they had not only played a major part in defining early American power-pop, but also how they transcended most of what the genre had to offer in any territory on the map -- US, UK, Europe, wherever. Then as now.

Jeff Murphy, vox/guitarist and all-around swell gent, kindly entertained some of my q's with a's by e-mail some weeks ago.

Attacking the Beat:
First off, Jeff, how long had you and John been playing together before meeting Gary Klebe and Skip Meyer? Were you two involved in any other bands before the Shoes? How did you meet?

Jeff Murphy: John and Gary were high school buddies and came up with the initial idea for the band in mid-1973 and I hooked up with them shortly afterwards. When we needed a new drummer in 1976 we found Skip by a fluke; he was dating Gary's sister. There weren't any other bands for us (but Skip was in a local cover band).

ATB: In your formative years, what bands did you aspire to sound like?

JM: We were hugely inspired by the British invasion (Beatles, Stones, Who, Hollies, Badfinger, etc.) as well as American artists and bands like Big Star, Nils Lofgren (Grin), Neil Young and even bands like the Turtles, Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

ATB: What were your early shows like? How was it playing in the Chicago area? Any early tours?

JM: We never played live that much, although we were doing shows in the Chicago area. We always preferred to be in the studio writing and recording. It's tough to strip the songs down to basic "guitar, bass, drums" arrangements after fleshing a song out in the studio. So our shows are usually the more rock-edged songs that we do. But we've still managed to play on both coasts, in the midwest and even in Canada. The opportunity arose to play in Japan through our label there, Air Mail Recordings, and we're really excited about the gigs there!

ATB: What made you decide to record and release those early albums yourselves?

JM: Mostly out of necessity! We bought an early 4-channel tape machine to learn to write, play and record our songs and couldn't afford to go into a "real" studio. So we pressed the discs ourselves. But we always hoped to get signed to a major label, because back at that time, it was the only way to get your music out to a larger audience. But even after we got our deal, we still maintained control over our business and music. So reverting back to indie status in the early 1980s wasn't all that tough. Now, most cool music is on indie labels!

ATB: What was the recording process like for those early releases --
Un Dans Versailles, Bazooka and Black Vinyl?

JM: Well, with each new set of tunes, we learned more and more about the process of recording and song structures. By the time we did Black Vinyl Shoes, we had developed a format and sequence to the recording that allowed the best sound quality with those limited resources. We would record rhythm guitars and drums in stereo, first. Then we'd "ping-pong" or "bounce" the tracks around while adding additional instruments until we had solos, backing vocals, percussion or whatever else we wanted in the song. (In the Abbey Road sessions with the Beatles, they referred to this process as "making a reduction". Combining several tracks together and re-recording that mix of things onto one new track.) Then, we would record the main vocals on a track, usually combined with a minor instrument that wouldn't interfere too much, or would work around the vocals. Then add bass and maybe a tambourine on its own track. After all 4 tracks were full, we'd make a stereo final mix. We eventually developed a flow-chart type of track sheet that we could plot out a song before we started recording it. If you bounced a track more than twice it started to sound pretty crappy, so we limited bounces to twice. Bass didn't bounce well, so it was recorded later and not usually bounced at all.

ATB: Was the band happy with the production on these records? I think the sound of
Black Vinyl in particular is very ethereal, a lush and dreamlike buzz -- especially for a 4-track recording! Looking back, what are your thoughts on the way those records sound?

JM: The limitations frustrated us at the time, but also forced us to make certain decisions as we went along that helped create that particular sound. Because even our guitars, amps, effects and mics were limited, we made the best with what we had. In some cases, this meant not using an amp at all and plugging directly into the mixing desk. It made for some weird sounds, but they proved to be fairly unique. While we are embarrassed by a lot of the early productions and performances (it's like seeing pictures of yourself from 3rd grade!) they were an essential part of our development and overall, we're fairly proud of how they turned out, given the circumstances they were created in. By the time we did Black Vinyl Shoes, we were pretty comfortable with the process.

ATB: What halted the release of
Bazooka after it had been recorded in '76?

JM: Our drummer up to that point was a friend named Barry Shumaker and he decided to quit the band in early 1976 to pursue a career in music retail. We didn't feel right pressing up a record with a drummer that was quitting and we didn't have the money to do it anyway. We found Skip in late 1976 and immediately started recording Black Vinyl Shoes in November of that year, finally finishing in May of 1977.

ATB: Can you explain how you came into contact with Bomp! Records and describe your relationship with Greg Shaw?

JM: After we pressed up Black Vinyl Shoes and released the LP in summer of 1977, we started to send copies to local critics and music writers. That opened up an entire network of music publications and fanzines that were exploding onto the scene, largely fueled by the punk and D.I.Y. movement. Greg found out about us and started to buy copies of BVS for overseas distribution. By late 1977 he asked us to record a single for his label. He wanted to re-issue BVS on Bomp!, but couldn't get things put together in a timely manner due to financial restrictions (small label and magazine). He had great musical instincts and was very focused on the music, but wasn't a great businessman. So we re-issued BVS on Passport Records/JEM Imports in the fall of 1978, much to Greg's chagrin. We remained friends, but he didn't like the fact that we had gone with a major label instead of remaining independent. Greg was very helpful in encouraging us to set up a PO Box for contact/fan club correspondence and telling us about publishing alternatives. We set up Shoetunes publishing in 1978 and have always controlled our own publishing and copyrights.

ATB: Many herald the Shoes as one of the bands that defined American power-pop in the '70s. How did you guys fit into the power-pop scene of this period? What bands did you consider to be like-minded, and what bands did you enjoy playing with?

JM: We never really played with any other bands of the day. But we admired bands like Big Star, The Nerves, The Ramones, 20/20, Dwight Twilley, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, The Cars, Emitt Rhodes, Grin, Neil Young, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren. We really liked folks that did that D.I.Y. thing and had a grassroots feel to their sound and approach. We just played what we enjoyed and didn't really try to follow a movement or musical trend. It's great to be acknowledged for the music we did back then, but we continue to write and record new stuff, although we're a bit more sporadic in our time between releases.

ATB: When punk rock and new wave "hit," how did that affect the band? Did you feel that you were welcomed by that particular audience?

JM: Absolutely! We loved it. It was an explosion of creation and new music. Even though the musical content may have been of a different genre, we felt a real kinship with the punk movement. Things were moving quickly and it was great fun to see all the new stuff coming out. It was inspiring and a challenge to keep up with.

ATB: How did your relationship with Elektra Records begin? Was there now a sense of pressure added to the mix due to the involvement of a major label?

JM: Elektra discovered us through the re-release of Black Vinyl Shoes. They had recently established the Cars as a new band and were looking for more new acts. When they flew in to meet with us in early 1979, we were already finishing the demos that became Present Tense (recently released as part of the Double Exposure CD set) so we were ready to jump right into the studio and start recording. It was perfect timing for us. But yeah, it started to put pressure on us to "write hits" which can always create a tense, combative relationship with the label. Fortunately, through most of our tenure with Elektra, we maintained alot of control over our music and had a great relationship with most of the folks at the label.

ATB: Can you explain what it was like to record in a comparatively lavish 24-track studio for
Present Tense? Was it difficult working with Mike Stone, the producer, after the band had essentially been producing its own records for years?

JM: Working with Mike Stone at The Manor Studios in England was a dream come true for us! It was heaven. We did have some creative differences with Mike over some issues, but overall it was a great experience. We were technically singed to Elektra as a production company, so we had production control over the process. I recently found a bunch of slides and photos I had taken while recording there and wrote about it in a book last year called Birth of A Band, The Record Deal and The Making of Present Tense.

Look out for an upcoming reissue of the seminal Black Vinyl Shoes on Spain's Wah Wah Records, and if you happen to be in the area, you might catch 'em touring Japan in April.