TERMININAL BOREDOM GUIDE TO
SILVER ERA SAN FRANCISCO ART PUNK, 1977-82 (ish)
By Sgt. Slaughter
It's now been pounded home to the point of glassy-eyed acceptance, but in the era before genres hardened in the early-to-mid-1980's, your average pre-mohawk mongoloid could partake equally of Throbbing Gristle, the Modern Lovers and Crime and still consider themselves "punk". The basic thrust of all of this musical activity was to create "art" that was thoroughly unsuitable as sonic wallpaper, music that demanded your attention, or was simply and completely unlike anything then on the radio. Everything from the Cramps to Non qualified. The Bay Area scene produced as much qwality krap as any of the more hyped scenes, LA and NY included.
"Art punk" is a term that's tossed about these days with the sort of casual abandon one usually associates with grenades rebounding into mess tents in the Green Zone. This article is inherently guilty of the same crime, as it seeks to retroactively divvy up records that used to sit side by side in cute little retro record racks from the Sunset to Potrero Hill, but it's been 25 years or more since these (sometimes) fantastic records wandered out of Aquarius Records or Rather Ripped or Rough Trade and perspective is a Bitch From Hell. I mean, Crime were a conceptual artpunk band if you really want to nitpick about it, but I'll steer a more familiar course. It's safe to say that even within the confines of a self-limiting term like "art-punk" there will be stark disagreement over some of the krap I'm including but this isn't a purist or 'essentialist' article, so lighten up, hey?
Records, records, records. I am not going to run through the Family Tree of the San Francisco/Bay Area art-punk scene; One: because I've never really cared all that much about how many bands Snidely Henceforth played xylophone for, and Two: that sounds like actual work. Records, records, records, that is my purview, skinnies. Which records are worth your obsessing over, and why. Keep in mind that the Sgt. does not own every arty punk disque from the period; no, I don't have the first Non 7" or the Chrome box set, or a box full of Leland outtakes on withering Ampex tape, but since you won't find any of those at your local watering hole, what's the point anyhow? Some of the bands below could generate their own full length articles by themselves, so please excuse the necessary brevity. I'm also assuming that if you are scanning this with genuine interest that you have some kind of tolerance for some or all of the following: free jazz, dada, proto-goth, synths, Eno, film noir, seven-minute songs, funk influences (both overt and implied), jazzbo-tendencies, intellectual boredom, film soundtracks, the (complete) works of William S. Burroughs and overeducated (post)teenage drama. Oh, and have very bad attitudes. Cool.
Tuxedomoon is a quintessential band in this genre, they put out nothing but great and interesting vinyl up until around 1981. You can pick up any of their early singles and EPs along with the "Half Mute" LP on Ralph (from 1980) and spend several hours contentedly picking at your irritated brain. Push come to shove, I'd call them the SF version of Cabaret Voltaire. Their first 7", "Pinheads on the Move", was sort of the shot across the bow for local arties; it initially came out in a supra-limited edition (which I've never seen, ever) but the black-n-white version you are more likely to find has the same music. One of their primary guys, Winston Tong, has some solo stuff from right around this time that is also worthwhile. There is a double LP called "Pinheads on the Move" which collects their early singles and practice/live stuff from the 70's, put out on a Belgian label called CramBoy in 1987, and is probably the best place to start: goes great with Jean Genet. Avoid all Tuxedomoon vinyl after say, 1982, as it gets a little tough to sit through without a sideways high. There are a surprising number of live vinyl boots floating around dating from the 80-82 period when this band was comparably huge in Europe (they moved there), but me no have.
Chrome, I'm sure you've heard of Chrome, the two-man (mainly) studio band that played out like, twice (ala Steely Dan) during their early period. They put out a series of aggressively pinned-eye LPs and EPs all of which are essential up 'til about 1982. Their singles are also great. You can get probably find 'Firebomb' or 'Anorexic Sacrifice' for not too much green. The sonic secret behind Chrome is the extended psych undercurrents (like Hawkwind and mid-70's krautrock violently stripped of their 'hippie' cultural trappings) that make their sci-fi obsessed full lengths singularly unique for the time. The 'Alien Soundtracks' and 'Half Machine Lip Moves' LPs were reissued on Touch 'N Go in the mid 90's, although the other solid LPs, 'Red Exposure', 'Blood on the Moon' and '3rd From the Sun' haven't been re-vinylized since the mid 80's. There is also a quasi-compilation LP from 1983, 'Raining Milk', that is well worth picking up. The Chrome box set from 1982 has several of their early LPs, and a few discs of then-unreleased stuff (the CD re-release on Cleopatra doesn't cover it all). Don't look for it at Squinting Ratfuck's Vinyl Records, even the simp who overprices the Beatles stuff kens this is worth $$. Avoid their later records on Dossier, it ain't happening...well, it ain't really Chrome...
The Sleepers are the rockers in this genre, and I think Joe Carducci described them best as (paraphrasing), "What Joy Division would have turned into if they had the balls". Which is weird, because the obvious anglophilia that ran through the SF scene made it more likely that bands would gladly proffer their testes for removal if only they could get a record out on Throbbing Gristle's Industrial... The first Sleepers record is a 5-song 7" EP, originally on Win Records from 1978, and is one of the best head-nod artpunk 7" this side of the Endtables; a cough syrup-driven bummer that leaves you feeling morbidly discontented and slightly anxious. Gar! It was booted a couple years back, no worries. They broke up for a time, then reformed around 1980 for a 7" and an LP (Sleepless Nights) that perfectly mirrored Joy Division's transition towards the spectral gothic on their own 'Closer' LP. Lead drawler Ricky Williams' main vehicle for the remainder of the 1980's were the Toiling Midgets, and their first LP 'Sea of Unrest' from 1982 will chill your ass out just fine, it's actually a bumpier ride than the Sleepers LP overall.
The Units were a synth-band whose output was always sorta teetering towards commercial new wave, but on their eps they allow themselves to just be comfortably weird and these are the winners: "High Pressure Days", which comes in a stamped plain sleeve, and "Warm Moving Bodies". They've got a decent LP from 1980, "Digital Stimulation", which will definitely get the more Epoxies-inclined among you shoving your hands into the blender. Avoid all their later work, they are gunning to get on the 'Breakfast Club' soundtrack, although maybe that's what some of you sick fucks are really on about...
The Residents...where to begin? Won't bother, as they pre-dated the whole punk scene in SF by several years and became a primary influence worldwide for weird outsider types from LA to New York to the UK DIY scene to Bloomington to... Their vinyl on their own Ralph Records label is not too hard to track down as long as you don't get hung up on sleeve variations/colored vinyl etc. (although they issued some flat-out beautiful sleeves...SHUT UP!). The general template is a strangely-accented Bayou drawl leaping and sliding over creepy synth action spiked with squirrely guitar frizz courtesy their sidekick, Snakefinger. There was nothing else like them at the time, and they short-circuited the fame game by keeping their identities secret. They have at least a half dozen lps from the 75-82 period that are good places to dive in, but start with, I dunno, "Duck Stab" and "Third Reich 'N Roll". Snakefinger's solo output on Ralph during the same period is also fine wine; his 7" are especially great and still relatively easy to find (you could press 10-20,000 copies of a "hit" indie 7" back then), being some of the flat-out catchiest weirdo art-wave-pop this side of Devo. Who, incidentally, were huge in SF early on.
Pink Section put out the "Tour of China" 7" and a s/t 12" and should have done more, but whaddya gonna do, they were playing in every other band in town and life is short and cheap. They veer from catchy art-pop to demented synth spazz, and if they had been from New York they would have a full retrospective CD out by now. Fuck you, God.
Randomly jerking around, there is a pile of good-to-great arty 7" from this region, a bottomless pit really. Both of the Ryth-a-Rama 7" are pure no-wave dancefloor hits-slash-room-clearers. The Defuser "World Suicide" 7" from 1982 is a hoot and a half, a post-Jonestown diatribe about social control and impending doom set to a synth-rock amalgam that suggests exposure to Von Lmo...yeah, right. They have an LP too but it's too late, tooooo late...
The Survivors "They Died" 7" is a more straightforward synth-creepout treatment of the Jonestown massacre (this was a huge deal in the Bay Area, as the cult originally fled from SF in the late 70's) with some Jim Jones lectures layered underneath the pulsing wash. The Precision Bearings "Don't Fall Down" 45 from 1981 is an excellent example of "minimal synth with drum machines" meeting burgeoning beep-boink post-disco. One side of each, both very 'effective'. Re Styles and the Final Rinse have an ep from 1982, "Nuclear Beauty Parlor", that could slot onto a non-existent New York art-fag comp with ease (I would like to state at this point that an art-punk scene without homosexuals galore is a contradiction in terms, bus 'em in if you have to), and the b-side track 'Awake', credited to one V.K. and Sci-Fi, is one of the few spoken word pieces (with synth backing) that is effectively both disturbing and funny.
ICU also do the drum-machine synth thing on a 1981 7" with swinging aplomb, on the A-side at least, and they get another bonus for being yet another two-man group. Suicide never dies. All of the Voice Farm 7" are worth picking up, one of them is on Alternative Tentacles so it's not too hard to find. Wetnurse put out a bizarre sleeveless 7" which is supposed to be a demo from 1978 (produced by Huey Lewis!); you can listen to KBD #14 and tell me if that's punk or artpunk on there, I say 'art'. Novak was the producer of many local records at this time, and he also churned out great what-the-fuck oddities on his own Dumb Records label. You can pick up any of his (it's a band as well) three 7" EPs and get a stupid grin on your face as he slaps together elements of fake disco (you could probably ski on the residual tap dancing powder that's pressed into the vinyl of these), straight up new wave, and of course artpunk.
I suppose I could mention other KBD things like the East Bay's Teenage Ph'Ds 7" or the Destry Hampton & the Wolves from Hell's EP, but $300 7"ers that are comped on KBD's are like, nowhere, so I won't mention them. The Psyclones "Electric Tone" 7" from 1981 is a great example of tautly riff-oriented artpunk that is channeling the first Pere Ubu LP, and is also an exemplar of what happens to bands as they 'mature' and the synths lose their aggressive tendencies and start to become defacto string sections; see their later 80's 12" output. SST put out one great snarky 7" in '78 with female vocals (this scene was not only homo-infested, there were clams on almost every other record!) whose snarling lyrical nihilism never fails to brighten any day that's starving for it. Tanks have a decent 2-songer 7" from 1982 that's artpunk, I guess, especially the A-side. There's a double 7" called "Earcom 3" that is most famous (sic) for its songs from the Middle Class' 1st EP, but Noh Mercy have several tracks on there that are a real clattering mess.
The Bay Area was not a very prolific scene for compilation LPs for some reason, certainly nothing like LA or the UK over the same period, but there are some solid senders and comps are always the best place to start to get a sense of the scene. If a nascent scene can't produce a decent comp, then it's just a few isolated bands that move somewhere else to get heard. A decent one is the "Savoy Sound Wave Goodbye" which is all live recordings. Can you stand reggae? Me neither most of the time, but damn if every other arty band didn't have a lame 'dub' side on their EP. Well, skipping the Rasta-pasta stuff on here gets you good tracks from Tuxedomoon, the Sleepers, Snakefinger and Eazy Teeth. The 'Can You Hear Me' comp is another live winner, recorded live at the Deaf Club on Valencia St. (leaning out my bedroom window I'm looking at their old back door right now...wait, the building is being gutted, rats). You get top shelf screech from Pink Section on this one, as well as KGB, old friends Tuxedomoon and some better known punk 'acts' like the Dead Kennedys. Two pressings of this one, the later Jem press will do you fine. A prime example of punk rubbing shoulders with artpunk, and no one getting their faces slashed. So when are the Clorox Girls opening for Glass Candy, or vice versa? There's also a double LP, (another live one Louie!), "Live at Le Disque" which covers the whole range of the Bay Area scene, from awful wannabe AM radio krap to good powerpop to the real Weird Stuff, like Red Asphalt (who also have a really underrated Screamers-type stand alone 7" EP), and the Varve (beep beep with femme vox). There are some tracks on here that are 'arty' if you extend the definition to the first couple of Talking Heads records. Probably the most consistent comp top-to-bottom is the mighty 'Subterranean Modern' on Ralph Records circa 1980, which has multiple flat out great tracks from Chrome, MX-80 Sound (another 'whole article' band, or dig up that old issue of Forced Exposure with them on the cover), the Residents and Tuxedomoon, especially if you consider the marriage of sheet metal guitar with strangulated synth to be the apex of the form. And, for once, it ain't live.
I will finish with a quick overview of the best West Coast new wave label this side of Dangerhouse, Subterranean Records. They put out a couple dozen good-to-classic records, weaving all over the stylistic map and back. Hell, they put out the Chrome box I mentioned at the top of the hour in 1982, which could get them into heaven all by itself. Their punk stuff is covered pretty well in other venues (Society Dog, Tools, DK's, Sick Pleasure, etc.) but here is the arty-punk side of the label, and it is about as good or better than any other label in the USA at the time. So:
The Live At Target comp is the first 'industrial' artpunk record from the West Coast, for all intensive purposes. It's a multiple foldover job with lots of inserts (natch) and marks the vinyl debut of Flipper, Uns, Factrix and LA's Nervous Gender. Itís another live one, but an absolutely essential slice of artpunk history circa 1980, if only for Flipper's emergence as the new purveyors of patience-straining sonic anarchy. No Flipper: No Butthole Surfers. As a plus, by merely listening to the record you don't have to actually smell the band in the flesh. Factrix are nasty and aggressive in the best way (see below), and Uns is a noisy side project of this guy Z'Ev who we'll meet later.
The Bay of Pigs have a real grower on a single, the "Addiction" 7" from 1981. I can't find mine, I think it's in box JB-Zed12, but I remember it having the sort of edge that betrayed a lack of commercial ambition combined with highly effective worship of then-current UK sub-chart action. They were also obviously getting sick of the drugs that were absolutely decimating the SF scene by 1981/2.
The Flipper debut 7", I think it's artpunk in context, although everyone thinks of them as straight up punk these days, but that's in part a byproduct of all the punk and proto-HC bills they ended up on. They are far closer to the Velvet Underground (with Cale) or John Cage or Yoko Ono (pick 'em, you get my drift) in their intent and approach than to Negative Approach or SSD or Verbal Abuse. If I insist they are artpunk, then this is one of the ten best of the genre and it is also pretty easy to find. You will fall in love with 45s again after spinning this for an afternoon, try it with a pinch of meth in your anisette! Here's a chord, here's another, wait, I forgot that last one, fuck it, one's enough until I make up another one as I go along...ha!
Now the "Club Foot" LP comp from 1981 is undeniably artpunk, and here's where your boho jazz tolerance kicks in. These bands are pushing at the face of punk as personified by, I dunno, Legal Weapon or the Lewd, with both hands, elbows locked e-vun. This is the most overtly New York-ish thing here (they also had their own insular scene at a club of the same name) and the pretentions here can bow your head like a three-gallon dollop of Dapper Dan, but that was the whole point I suppose. The Longshoreman, Alterboys, Bay of Pigs, Naked City and the Club Foot Orchestra (I saw them create a chilling soundtrack to the silent vampire flick "Nosferatu" once, live in a movie theater) are the names here. They do not sound anything like Wide Awake or Go Sailor, fair warning.
There is a double 7" on clear vinyl by one Stefan Weiser called 'Extensions' (or something), this guy also went by the name Z'Ev, and this is another one that strains the 'punk' connection in a strictly 2005 context; it's far closer to a Stockhausen record, or a film soundtrack. It is proto-industrial to the extreme, however, and comes with loads of little inserts for the kiddies to color on.
The "Red Spot" compilation is from 1981, and it also happens to be the best representation of the great mixing of "art" and "punk" from this time. You get the Fried Abortions doing one-take proto-hardcore with "Joel Selvin" ("you're such a lively fart", a brutal takedown of the ossified hippie culture still dominating local media) along with some of the early kings of artpunk in Minimal Man, the Wounds and the menacing Animal Things, who really should have produced their own full-length. Their track 'Wanna Buy Some?" is a simultaneously scathing and hilarious attack on the looming hard drugs scene and the over-worshipped New York no wave posse: "Wanna buy some fucking heroin, wanna buy some fucking dust...get the funk outta punk!" Then you get the angsty-effective soundscape stuff from Micon, Minimal Man, etc. An intact copy of this comes with a pile of xerox sheets that the bands use to showcase their 'visuals'. Seems like every other band in the SF Bay Area wanted in on the underground film racket as well, but not all had the discipline showcased by LA's Screamers, who were waiting for 'digital video' to arrive, if I've read the story right. If you want to get a grasp of a 'moment in time' of the SF artpunk scene, this is probably the record to get. Don't get breathy, they're all on white vinyl. NOT live.
The Witchtrials s/t 12" is Jello Biafra's first 'spoken word' foray circa 1981, backed by a bunch of weirdos making an unholy racket that sounds like the sonic equivalent of Edward Gorey. This has been kept in print by Alternative Tentacles, and has been in print for so long on that label that folks forget it started here. Definitely artpunk, and one of the most off-putting records I've ever heard (circa 1985 when I ordered the Subterranean mailorder catalog).
Minimal Man was one guy, Patrick Miller, and whomever he brought along for the ride (or not). The 'Shroud Of' LP from 1981, along with the earlier "He Who Falls" 7" from 1980 (self-released), are about as bracing as anything from the early New York No Wave scene (Ah, the West Coast will always have that inferiority complex). The 'group' started out interested in doing strictly soundtrack-type stuff but the aggression and seething angst dripping off of many of these tracks drives them from merely the background of your attention to front and center. There is a live 7" on Sub from '83, '"Two Skeletons", that continues in this vein, but from there on out it's proto-Wax Trax digi dread.
Pre Fix have a fantastic EP from 1981 (rec in '80), with both sides of the "Underneathica" 7" ranking with the best artpunk from this period, period. It sounds like Chrome with spidery guitar fronted by antisocial artschool dropouts ("I'm a sociopathic weirdo...I know my friends they hate me...") and is a criminally underrated record. If you've read this far, you'll definitely want this, somehow. Layers of echo and fuzz on the vocals and guitar, yeeeeaaah.
Is there a better all-girl artpunk achievement than the five-track Inflatable Boy Clams double 7" EP from 1981? Perhaps the first Raincoats LP, the Liliput/Kleenex singles mebbe, but we're talking genius in that range, and with more humor. This is without a doubt the greatest girlfriends-of-more-famous-male-musicians artpunk record ever. It features the minimalism of the Young Marble Giants fronted by the coolest girl in the room. The track 'Sorry' is, like the Re Styles & the Final Rinse ep, the definitive effective spoken-word-with-synth art-wave track ever. Sigh.
Wilma have a three-track 7" EP from 1981, and it is effective femme-vox artpunk, you could have slotted this onto a New Alliance comp with no problem. Straddles the line between side one and side two, got it? Their later LP from 1984 ain't happening. Nope, still not happening, too "80's", by gosh.
Flipper again, they put out their "Spider & the Fly" 7" and their debut "Generic" LP in 1982. What can I say about these that countless others have already stated. Just that I think they are classic artpunk. Oh, I also think the first couple of Minutemen records are artpunk too, but then the context changed (in part by their own efforts, 'nother article...).
We end with the efforts of Factrix, who put out the "Sheintot" LP and "Empire of Passion" 7" out on the local Adolescent Records label before waxing "California Babylon" on Sub in 1982. It's a split with proto-industrial musician/conceptualist Monte Cazazza, I believe. Suffice to say, if you like Throbbing Gristle, baby do I have a groin moistener for you. Another one of those bands that helped to create and define that term 'industrial', but don't hold My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult against them, they didn't know what forces they were unleashing. Here, they are just innocent nihilists skipping through a burned-out village with the bodies of the defeated lashed to the nearest smoke-belching Tiger tank. I guess you had to be there...wait, this one's live, so you can be!
There are more records whose effect is top shelf but my fingers are cramping, so just consider some of them anointed: Pope Paul Pot, Xmas Eve, the Bob, Non, MAL, Fang (first 7" is totally arty, yup!) Sweet Tommy Band, (early) Offs, James Goss & the Geeks, Wounds, B Team, the list goes on and on...hell, Wonders of Science too. There is also a huge mass of unreleased stuff from this era, and if you start to get into cassettes and extend it out into 1983 then all bets are off. The only CD I'll mention here is the "Miner's Benefit" comp that came out two or so years ago, which chronicles a live show for striking coal miners (the only thing being deep-shafted around here...ah forget it) that includes entire live sets from the likes of the Sleepers. I mention it as an example of what must be floating around in shoe boxes from Sausalito to Palo Alto. What records outside of New York's or Los Angeles' (both with 10 times-plus the population) compare to the SF Bay Area scene's output of 1977-83? Then there are legendary groups like the Bobby Death Band that never made it to vinyl...
The "official" Chrome website
Tuxedomoon Fan Site
Got a city, time period, region, label, genre or whatever that you think we need to do a guide to? Think you can do it yourself? Send all requests and submissions to termibore-at-aol-dot-com, we're always looking for quality help.
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