I think most serious music fans and collectors have private creation myths: little stories they can tell about how they came to be the way they are. Either it’s a friend or a sibling who passed them some ear-opening tapes, or a family that was filled with musicians, or a glancing exposure to something that sunk its hooks deeply into their brains and took them over for life. Or, in many cases, a combination of all of the above, which is how it was for me. Here’s a little piece of my own story.
When I was a junior in high school, I spent one night babysitting some friends who were tripping (this was before we all figured out that mixing the high and the non-high is generally frustrating for everyone involved). They spent that trip mostly playing an already ancient version of Space War on one dude’s PC. I was mostly relieved to be left alone for a while, having spent most of the day feeling like a tool for not wanting to get high myself, and spent the time flipping through channels on cable, something I didn’t have at home.
This was shortly after the introduction of VH-1 but before the introduction of 120 Minutes, and Viacom had unceremoniously dumped a bunch of semi-alternative music videos on an unnamed show late on VH-1, which I happened to catch. The three videos I saw were by Helios Creed, Front 242 and Danielle Dax, and it’s safe to say they changed my life. The Helios Creed video was sleazy and struck me at the time as a not-so-veiled paean to heroin, the Front 242 video was for “Headhunter” and made me desperately nostalgic for Brussels (which I’d visited for all of three hours 8 months previously), and the Danielle Dax video was for “Cat-House”, and was by far the most surreal of the bunch – which was saying something.
“Cat-House” is a weird song, mostly because of the way it plays Dax’s girl-group-gone-feral singing against what seems like more or less straightforward industrialized rock and roll. It sort of sounds like the Sisters of Mercy got a less wildly demonstrative Diamanda Galás to sing for them, and it’s a song that starts out seeming pedestrian, only to get weirder and weirder the more you hear both it and the rest of Dax’s painfully eclectic catalog. The video is basically Dax miming the song run through a battery of cheap video effects (which are done absolutely no favors by YouTube), but it has a hyperdelic intensity that hit me just right, maybe due to spending the day around people who were capable of watching a stalk of grass for 15 minutes without moving.
Dax has been around long enough that most people have forgotten her altogether, but I’ve been listening to her US best-of anthology, Dark Adapted Eye, a couple times a year ever since I picked it up (on cassette!) in 1989. She got her start in the incredibly weird Lemon Kittens, and her music has stayed hard to pigeonhole ever since, borrowing elements of Orientalism, perverse morbidity, cryptic metaphysical references, and a generally goth patina without ever having a fixed sound. She gave up on the music business back in 1995 in a fairly flamboyant fashion, issuing another best-of and obscurities collection with the pithily summarizing title of Comatose Non Reaction: The Thwarted Pop Career. At least she kept her sense of humor.
After recently discovering the bonanza of music to be found on the MP3 Blogs of Blogspotistan, I found Devastate to Liberate. It’s not an album you’re likely to have heard of unless you’re a fan of some of the bands on it (or an old-school member of PETA), but in its way it’s a Rosetta Stone of mid-80s weirdo music, with songs by Nurse With Wound, Legendary Pink Dots, Crass, Coil and a variety of other (talented yet obscure) industrial and anarcho-punk acts. It’s also, I think, the first militant animal-rights benefit album, being released to raise funds for the Animal Liberation Front.
Perhaps my favorite track on the album is one by a band I’d never heard before: the Shock Headed Peters. “Blue Rosebuds” is an unhinged five minutes of feedbacked scree and post-Sabbath guitar histrionics that neatly bridges the gap between heavy metal and the noise attack of Skullflower. It’s not metal, it’s not industrial, and it’s not rock and roll, but it’s definitely crazed and loud and I love it.
Shock Headed Peters were a project of Karl Blake, who was the other member of Lemon Kittens with Danielle Dax, and hearing this track prompted me to finally find the Lemon Kittens’ albums. The least obscure album Lemon Kittens put out was released on Steven Stapleton’s United Dairies, and whether or not you have the faintest inkling what United Dairies is, that should give you some idea how obscure the Lemon Kittens were. Their entire catalog is seemingly irretrievably out of print, and it’s hard to identify why, because their music is not unapproachable; it’s strange and amateurish (Dax didn’t know anything about music when she joined the band), but in the best spirit of post punk experimentalism, ideas are king, and a lot of the songs click after two or three listens. For now, you’ll just have to find one of the internet rips and download those, unless Blake or Dax decides to chance their luck with a label or distributor again (they both have fairly dyspeptic Myspace blogs).
Dax’s kiss-off to the music industry contained a couple songs she did in collaboration with Blake, one of which is an absolutely fabulous reinterpretation of a Shock Headed Peters song, “Hate on Sight”, which is turned from an acidic post-punk tune into something not unlike Curve playing doom metal. It’s enough to make tracking down a copy of Comatose Non Reaction all on its own, because it’s a great song.
All of this has filled me with a burning urge to hear more Shock Headed Peters, but their stuff is also incredibly hard to find (I found this, but I’d like legit copies of this stuff without having to pay extortionate eBay prices). It’s too bad, because Karl Blake plays guitar like a gifted demon (much like Helios Creed, to bring this story back to its beginning). No matter how much music I find, I always seem to find myself wanting more. It’s a pleasant problem to have, especially because I still like the old stuff – I’ve been listening to Danielle Dax’s music a bunch over the last few days and, if anything, I find her outsider take on goth music more charming now than I did when I first heard it 20 years ago.
head on 3
Once upon a time, I spent what seemed like an endless night with some friends watching a compilation of all of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s videos. Every one was identical: William and Jim Reid, standing in front of a monochrome backdrop (sometimes black, sometimes white, sometimes with cheesy video effects overlaid), staring straight into the camera with deadpan expressions (if they weren’t wearing sunglasses), listlessly strumming at their instruments without too much concern for staying in sync with the songs they were miming. Sometimes one would halfheartedly dance around, staring fixedly at the camera the whole time. After what seemed like eight hours (but was probably only four), it was a relief to switch to Nekromantik 2, and as anyone who has experienced that bizarre mindfuck (I hesitate to call it porn) knows, that’s saying something. After that night, it’s been easy for me to believe that the band are exactly as humorless as they seem.
But there’s always Barbed Wire Kisses. It was the first Jesus and Mary Chain album I bought, after hearing “Sidewalking” on the lone “alternative” radio show that Portland radio carried in syndication. “Sidewalking” is a catchy, propulsive electro-rockabilly ode to personal transportation, and I was mostly excited to hear it again, but the album ripped the top of my head clean off. The next day I was ranting to my friends at school, “DUDE, you’ve GOT to HEAR this! These guys use FEEDBACK as an INSTRUMENT!” I think it’s that combination of noise and pop that made JAMC so influential on My Bloody Valentine (who, after all, started out sounding pretty much exactly like The Cramps, another band of rockabilly outlaws) and the other Creation bands of the late 80s.
Barbed Wire Kisses is a collection of singles and B-side tracks, but it has a coherency and sleek, menacing sound that I miss on the rest of JAMC’s records. It also has a few choice covers, and that’s where it seems like maybe they do have a deeply buried sense of whimsy (if not humor), because their choices for artists to cover are Bo Diddley, the Beach Boys, and… Can? They somehow take “Mushroom”, one of Damo Suzuki’s stream of consciousness rants, and make it sound positively malign. It’s not quite as doom-hollowed as “Cracked”, which has a queasy sexual vibe that both thrilled and spooked me back in 1988, but the JAMC version brings out the nuclear-war subtext in a way that’s left completely implied in the original.
(As a side note, it’s always mystified me why the Pixies chose to cover “Head On”, probably one of the least interesting songs in the entire JAMC catalog, by turning it into probably one of the least interesting songs in the entire Pixies catalog.)