Evaporate Your Brain
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Anyway, whereas the terrain of the post-cataclysm world has been well-mapped, we are only now beginning to get a reasonably complete picture of what came before. As an answer to Killed by Death/Bloodstains/Back to Front, collectors now are putting together compilations of the unpretentious pre-punk underground, and reissues abound. If the retrospective style-definition of Killed by Death raises problems for some purists, then the analogous work for hard rock is even more vexed. Where to draw the lines? What gets lumped together artificially? How do links of region and nation confuse rather than reveal? Most people don’t care, and they just want riffs. It’s a salutary position. It’s what I have attempted to adopt here in this mixtape. I've leaned toward the desolate, the depressed, and the downbeat. Melancholia was certainly not the only emotion to be found during the decade, but it seems the most appropriate emotion for the interregnum between hippie and punk, even if it hides the exuberant wildcat rebellions that persisted throughout the period. The feeling of being left out of the action, though, expressed in much of this music, did get reconfigured with punk, which said emphatically that no one would be left out if everyone did it all themselves.
But if you want to drive yourself nuts wondering if what you’re listening to is proto-punk, proto-doom, proto-metal, psych, hard rock, “bonehead,” etc., start with a few recent compilations: the “Bonehead Crunchers/Crushers” series on Belter, followed by two volumes called “Ultimate Bonehead!” released in the past couple weeks; “Casting the Runes” and “Do What Thou Wilt” on Electric Pentacle; “Darkscorch Canticles” on Numero; the two volumes of “Michigan Meltdown” on Coney Dog; the particularly spurious concept-wise “Angel Dust Psychedelia” on Frisco Speedball; and the “Downer-Rock Genocide” CD (yuck) on Audio Archives. There may be others. All have gems; all are imperfect. I have drawn from several of these compilations, and a few other sources here. In case you, Shit-Fi fan, are wondering, the two Electric Pentacle volumes of all UK bands tend toward the lo-fi end of the spectrum. One note: I have excluded glam from this mixtape. Glam represents a relatively discrete and well-known tributary to punk (and 80s metal). I’m seeking here a more obscure, indistinct, incomplete tributary. It may not reveal much, but at least it sounds good. In the end, genealogy is never enough. But the backward glance can help contextualize, even as it may make it difficult to appreciate these records on their own terms. In the meantime, evaporate your brain.*
About the songs:
Like many people—record collectors and norms alike—I was deeply affected by Searching for Sugarman, a documentary that operated on many levels, social, political, and, uh, vinyl. Light in the Attic Records has done a great job of making Sixto Rodriguez’s music available to the wide audience he deserves. I can’t add much to the acclaim he’s received except to say that the fuzz riff on “Only Good for Conversation” is as cutting as they come. None of his other songs sounds like this one, yet it also couldn’t be anyone else’s. Just brilliant, if not exactly a private press.
On the second Electric Pentacle volume, “Casting the Runes,” a dim, underpolished Barnabus appeared with three tracks. “Resolute” is the best of the bunch, an ineffably fragile, tormented track that is continually on the verge of falling apart—emotionally, structurally—and then the riff returns and we are back on momentarily solid ground.
Only a one-off 1972 teenage hard rock band from Rockford, Michigan (just north of Grand Rapids), could deem it appropriate to name their band Music and call their barely distributed private-press LP “The Book of Music Volume 1.” The thing is that the unbelievable range and world-weariness-beyond-their-years visible on this track, “My Side of the Mountain,” makes it one of the most compelling riff-monsters I have ever heard. Not every song on the record is this ripping, but they did helpfully label its sides “(Light)” and “(Heavy).” Grand Funk, step aside and learn you some Music.
Wrath stands out among 70s private-press 45s for having a woman belting out the tune—"Warlord." The story told, on the estimable compilation of such wonders "Darkscorch Canticles" from Numero, is that the singer was a last-minute fill-in when the regular singer was laid low by illness: by Satan, of course, because who else would have had the foresight to take this teenage fantasy to the next level? I wonder who got to keep the rhyming dictionary after the divorce.
One of a multitude of tracks called “Wild Boys” (Geizz, anyone?), this one is a Kim Fowley (RIP, ya creep) creation, in collaboration with a guy called Neil Norman who cut tracks for science-fiction soundtracks in the 1970s. It can be found on the first "Bonehead Crunchers" compilation.
Here’s a track by the totally forgotten (or never known) TNS, “Time’s Up.” Basement rock, in the red, what more do you need? It’s hidden on the second volume of “Michigan Meltdown.” Here’s my fantasy: though younger, they attended the very same Grand Rapids–area high school as Music and were trying to Stooge up the local sound that had veered too close to hippie. Isn’t it pretty to think so? Can you imagine the mayhem of detention at that school?
Indigenous to, uh, England, Sioux released a sleazy stomper of a record through the pay-to-play label SRT. Says Robin Wills, they were “stuck between a Hard Rock place and ineptitude.” That is pretty much exactly where I want my eardrums these days.
“Troublemaker” by Chris Zebby Tembo & Ngozi Family is definitely the heaviest track released in Zambia in the 1970s. Just punishing lo-fi postcolonial melancholia here. I still wish I’d published that 5,000-plus-word article called “How (Not) to Write About African Psych” I began working on eight years ago, but it’s probably moot now.
Egor must be one of the best of the hundreds of 70s British bands inspired by Sabbath but without a release of their own. This track, “Street,” from a 1971 live recording is their only track circulating, and for my money it is one of the absolute best Sabbath-acolyte tunes. Just when you think the tune is losing steam and they have run out of ideas and you’re bored of the boogie direction it’s going in, and you’re considering going outside for a smoke, and you’re talking to your mate about some lass, it transitions into a counterpart, a reinvention, with a riff that commands your full attention. Incredible. By the way, the brilliant guitarist was only 16 years old at the time, and, even stranger, another member of this London band came to play in a reformed, 1990s version of T2, the absolute best British prog band of the early 1970s I have heard.
To close, here is the mysterious Stonewall, about whom I’ve waxed before. A certain former interlocutor who shall remain nameless once exclaimed about a 70s punk song he did not recognize, “What is this sex music?” He had clearly never really heard punk, nor probably had sex. Anyway, the point is this: these macho longhairs, in Stonewall, they know what sex music is.