The Zarkons – “Riders in the Long Black Parade” (1985)

This is the kind of record I love to find when digging – something unusual from the 1980s, in great shape, and only released on vinyl (so no guilt about the fact I could by the CD used for a few bucks).  In fact this copy of 1985s Riders in the Long Black Parade was still sealed – though unfortunately a punch-out.  But hey, it was still in great shape.

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Normally I’m not a guy who cares about the stickers on the front of albums.  I know lots of folks will simply slit open the shrink so they can keep the record covered and preserve any stickers attached to it, but I pretty much don’t bother.  This record was an exception though, because I thought the sticker was funny.

So The Zarkons used to be the Alley Cats.  That didn’t mean anything to me when I bought Riders in the Long Black Parade, but it probably should have.  The Alley Cats were part of the first generation of L.A. punk bands and put out a couple of important singles, though never a full-length album, which may explain why bands like The Germs and X are better known to history.  Oddly I ran across a reference to the Alley Cats about a week after buying this record, as the band is mentioned a few times in John Doe and Tom DeSavia’s new book, Under the Big Black Sun:  A Personal History of L.A. Punk.  I checked a few other sources on my shelves and, sure enough, The Alley Cats pop up here and there in various punk histories, but usually just as a brief mention.

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Contemporary reviews of Riders in the Long Black Parade show disappointment that the album failed to match the intensity of the earlier Alley Cats singles.  Of course, I get the benefit of hearing it fresh for the first time with no preconceived notions tied to the band’s earlier output.  And I think this is a pretty solid rocker.  You can feel The Zarkons’ new wave and punk roots, but the songs lean more towards rock, and a bit of a darker style of rock at that, sort of like if early Warsaw/Joy Division had been a rock band.  “I’m Lovesick of the World” is a great tune, pounding and moody and aggressive.  “Darkness Syncopation” is like a post-punk Clash song, a weird blend of new wave with a hint of ska/reggae influence, and “I Got a Hole in Me” is probably the closest The Zarkons come to capturing the old-school early L.A. punk sound.  There’s also a punked out cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” made doubly cool because while Dianne Chai’s deep female vocals are similar to those of Grace Slick, she puts a much harder edge to them. (♠)  The whole things is almost proto-riot grrrl to me – songs like “Schizo-Phrenia” remind me a lot of the weightiness and power of L7.

I dig this record.  And since some intrepid soul recorded the whole thing and posted it on YouTube along with a track list that shows where on the video you can find each song, now you can dig it too.  So check it out, but watch out for those white rabbits.  They can’t be trusted…

(♠)  Feed your head… feed your head…

Battery Farley – “Dress for Obscurity (One of the Unlucky Medium Bombers)” (1986)

Getting home on Friday evening after four straight weeks of business travel was a major relief, all the more so because I had a bunch of vinyl I’d picked up at Los Angeles’ Amoeba Music in my bag and nothing planned for the weekend.  Little did I know, though, that I picked up some kind of bug, probably on the plane, and by Sunday all I wanted to do was sit on the couch and stare at the TV.

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I finally dragged myself over to my vinyl shelf in the afternoon and went looking for something weird to fit my weird mood.  Battery Farley’s one and only LP, 1985s Dress for Obscurity (One of the Unlucky Medium Bombers) (♠), seemed to fit the bill, being described as both punk and new wave.  But what I got was something way different than what I expected.

I mean, what the hell is happening here?  I haven’t taken any cold medicine today, but I feel like I just chugged a pint of Nyquil, like I’m hearing this music while submerged in a vat of molasses or something.  Is the speed too slow?  I don’t think so, and it matches the sound of a few examples I found on YouTube.  Hell, I even timed the song “Things We Said Today” to see if it matched the run time shown on the jacket reverse; it didn’t, but what was weird was that the run time I got was 20 seconds less than that shown, which would seem to indicate it was spinning faster than it should have been and not slower. (♣)  The record isn’t warped, and it appears the rotational speed is correct.  So as bizarre is it seems, I think this is exactly how it’s supposed to sound.

Dress for Obscurity is some trippy stuff.  It’s like early 1980s synth pop slowed down to the point of near distortion.  It’s actually difficult for me to describe because I find myself having a hard time truly listening to the music.  That’s not to say it’s bad, because it’s certainly not. (♥)  Instead it’s pulling me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to think about what I’m hearing more than just listening to it.  “Mojave Airport” is like an acid soaked 60s pop song, and there may be more than a bit of an influence from that time and genre given that Battery Farley also cover The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” (1964).  There’s definitely a classic pop-rock sensibility, but one that is slowed down and relying more on synths.  I mean, “Chernobyl Song”… WTF?  It’s just strange and weird and odd, though the interspersed newscaster audio clips make it very clear this is spinning at the right speed.  But the music… man, Nyquil city, baby.

If you like it a bit strange, though, you’ll dig Dress for Obscurity If you can find a copy.

(♠)  The parenthetical mention of “one of the unlucky medium bombers” references the image on the front jacket, which appears to be a World War II B-26 bomber bursting into flames, very likely moments before falling from the sky and taking it’s seven man crew with it.  I can only imagine being a young man (or an older one for that matter) facing this kind of fate.

(♣)  Two other songs, however, did check out just fine, my timing matching the listed run times – “1963” and “April In April”.  This is one of those rare occasions that I wish I had a turntable with pitch control, because I feel like this needs to be sped up just a tiny bit.

(♥)  Holly says it sounds like a slowed down version of Devo.  I can’t disagree with that.

Shriekback – “Oil and Gold” and “Big Night Music” (1985 & 1986)

I got turned onto Shriekback while sitting in a hotel room in Kansas City listening to the comp Sherwood at the Controls Volume 1: 1979-1984.  Their funkiness hit me right between the eyes and I made a mental note to be on the lookout for their stuff.  And it was only a few days later while digging in the New Arrivals section at Guestroom Records in Oklahoma City (work travel is glamorous…) that I came across a copy of their 1985 record Oil and Water.  Serendipity.  Then a little further into the bin I found 1986s Big Night Music.  Winning.

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My entire opinion of Shriekback was based on the sound of one song, “Mistah Linn He Dead,” so at least a minimal amount of research was in order.  Two of the band’s founding members were keyboardist/singer Barry Andrews (formerly of XTC) and bassist Dave Allen (formerly of Gang of Four), so already it was obvious that they had some legit musical chops.  It also explained that crazy, funky-ass bass that hit me right after the needle drop on Oil and Gold‘s “Malaria,” a funk-fest that was sort of a blend of Depeche Mode and Oingo Boingo.  The album is a very danceable brand of post punk, a bit dark and with a wandering bass, but with a generally uptempo pace, the major notable exceptions being “This Big Hush” and “Faded Flowers” with their slow, rich flows.  The other high point, in addition to “Malaria,” is the almost militaristic march of “Hammerheads,” an aggressive, driving number that will make you want to get out of your chair and stomp around the room.

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Big Night Music picks up right where Oil and Gold left off, with he very post punkish “Black Light Trap,” before taking more mainstream turn with the typically new wave “Gunning for the Buddha.”  This isn’t a major stylistic leap from its predecessor, but it definitely sounds like a band evolving into a different direction, a bit more poppy, a bit less danceable.  Actually it might even be headed a bit toward the dreaded “adult contemporary” territory.  Don’t let that fool you though, it’s still a decent record and the musical talent of the ensemble is obvious.  This was the last record to feature Allen on bass as he departed to work on other projects, though he did make a return appearance on 2003s Having a Moment.

Based on these two records, I think if I pick up more Shriekback it will be the older material – their more post punk songs are the ones that appeal to me more.

“Sherwood at the Controls” Compilation (2015)

My first exposure to the On-U Sound record label was purely accidental.  I’d heard that KEXP’s DJ Masa had sold a considerable chunk of his record collection to Silver Platters, and that the local Seattle-area indie music store was setting up a special section featuring his vinyl at their downtown location.  I swear I looked through every record in the surprisingly large section, one that probably measured a good 30+ feel of shelf space… and I doubt I recognized more than 10 bands/artists in the whole thing. 

After considerable use of my cell phone, though, I picked out enough stuff to walk to the front counter with a stack of maybe 12-15 records.  Eddie was working the counter that day, though I didn’t really know him yet at the time, and he looked at me with a smile and said, “I love that On-U Sound.”  I honestly had no idea what he was talking about, not even realizing that the half dozen or so 12″ records in my pile by Gary Clail, Tackhead, and Barmy Army were all on the On-U label.  I laugh when I think about that now.

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I was at that same branch of Silver Platters a few weeks back when I ran across the newly released Sherwood at the Controls, a two-record compilation of Adrian Sherwood-produced tracks from the early 1980s, which is relevant to my story because Sherwood was the founder of On-U Sound and a member of Tackhead.  Despite the fact that I only recognized a pair of the performers spread over the 14 tracks (The Slits and The Fall), buying it was an easy choice.

So tonight I find myself sitting in a hotel room in Kansas City, with a belly full of BBQ and an overwhelming desire to avoid checking my work email, which as it turns out is the perfect time to put in the earbuds and listen to Sherwood at the Controls.  I’ve actually been playing the download of the album (the vinyl comes with a download card) quite a bit over the last few weeks, but this is the first time I’ve done so with earbuds – and it makes a tremendous difference.  Sherwood’s production style from this period (and, frankly, later periods as well) is heavily influenced by dub, using lots of effects and reverb to change post-punk and new wave songs into something wholly different and alien-sounding, something jungle with it’s emphasis on bass and percussion and trippy with it’s post-production.  Right from the opening horn, that gives way to some funky-ass bass at the start of Medium Medium’s “Hungry, So Angry,” you know you’re in for a bizarre experience.  From the echoed percussion of Maximum Joy’s “Let It Take You There” to the Nina-Hagen-meets-dj-flugvel of Nadjma’s “Some Day My Caliph Will Come” (I absolutely postiive MUST track down the album this came from, 1984s Rapture In Baghdad), it’s like musical ping pong being played inside your skull.  And I love it.

One of the album’s high points comes about half way through, with the instrumetnal “Mistah Linn He Dead” by Shriekback, an early techno-dub track that still sounds fresh today over 30 years after it was recorded.  And that’s followed by a reggae-funk dub song by Voice of Authority, “Running (Feeling Wild),” the most traditional dub number on the comp.  Things take a heavy, heavy turn for the downright strange by song #10, “Third Gear Kills” by Annie Anxiety aka Little Annie, which reminds me a little of The Doors’ “The End” in terms of its nuttiness, and Annie sings more than a little like Jim with her husky voice.  The last four songs all more closely resemble traditional reggae dub as opposed to the post-punk and new wave influences of the earlier ones, a perfect way bring Sherwood at the Controls to a close

Adrian Sherwood’s production style resonates with me, as do the types of bands and artists he chose to work with.  I need to start paying a bit more attention to these types of labels that have a unique sound, and I’m definitely going to start looking for more On-U titles.

C. TV. – “Casablanca” (1983)

I hadn’t heard of the Icelandic band C. TV. prior to Ingvar pulling a copy Casablanca off the wall at Lucky Records and telling me I should listen to it.  It only took about 10 seconds at the listening station to sell me on it.

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I still pretty much don’t know anything at all about C. TV.  I couldn’t find much online, though it looks like two of the band members were also in the new wave band Box that put out a couple of albums in 1981-82.  As Casablanca dates from 1983, it appears that C. TV. was a post-Box project, though as near as I can tell one that only resulted in a single album.  Vocally Casablanca has a very Warsaw/Joy Division post-punk sound to it, moody and half spoken, half sung, almost as if the record is supposed to be played on 45 rpm instead of 33 1/3 (it isn’t, I checked).  Musically it varies a bit more, from sticking to the post-punk sound (“The Life Dance”) to taking on elements of synth pop (“Casablanca”) to some funky-ass bass lines (“Come Back,” which lifts its bass line directly from Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme before later picking up with the James Bond theme).  Sigurður Sævarsson’s voice is what holds the whole thing together, giving the musically disparate songs a sense of continuity.

Casablanca is an intriguing record, one that incorporates strong elements of very specific genres without neatly falling into any of them.  The vocals are all in English, making it much more approachable for non-Icelanders, and it’s definitely good enough to be worth your time to check out if you can track down a copy.