Monday, October 18, 2004

Certain pundits are rather non-plussed by the awesome power that was the Screamers, and for the two cents I wish to put into the debate, I say it’s their loss: they stand as one of the great rock bands of the 1970s. I wrote this article a few years back on the band, so go there for the background. I suspect that anyone reading this probably doesn’t need the primer, so what’s to be said? I’ve revisited this LP the last few days and it stands tall as an essential document of prime late ‘70s West Coast underground rock from a band stuck in the wrong place and time, or perhaps a band who foolishly had their heads in the sand when people were making them offers they shouldn’t have resisted (an LP w/ Eno producing for one… what were they thinking knocking that back?!). With their once-in-a-lifetime mixture of Neu!-like electro-minimalism (never a guitar to be seen w/ this mob, thank you), Stooge-like aggression, Tomata Du Plenty’s camp, snarling, Lydonesque vocals and sense of all-encompassing orchestration obviously lifted from a heavy diet of Morricone and John Barry soundtracks, the Screamers created a desperate, paranoid aura which has yet to be replicated. If they were around now, they’d probably be sipping cocktails at Vice parties, so best just remember them for what they were: the greatest band of their day who never released or recorded anything of a “professional” nature, were the toast of LA’s hipster art-punk elite for a couple of years, sunk into oblivion and eventually wound up on a series of bootlegs you’d be nuts to pass on if they ever cross your path.

Zap me into a timewarp to the Masque ca. 1977 for a front and centre viewing of the Screamers and I’d probably die a very happy man. I was in regular correspondence with Tomata before his death in 2000 and I’m happy to report that he was the nicest guy I never met. For anyone who really gives a shit, you’ll also notice a brief interview with Screamer KK Barrett in the extras section of the Lost In Translation (a fine flick, I must add) DVD, he now being a big-shot production designer in Hollywood. Nice to know that not everyone from the early LA scene went the Darby route to oblivion. So obsessed was I with this band that, a few years back, I had the front cover of this LP tattooed on my right shoulder. That’s either a testimony to my extreme fandom or stupidity. You can decide that one.

BIG BOYS – Skinny Elvis CD; Fat Elvis CD
DICKS – 1980-’86 CD
Speaking of absolutely killer bands often swept under the carpet, one could never go past these two titans of early ‘80s Austin, Texas, hardcore, the mighty Big Boys and Dicks. Both fronted by older, fatter and gayer freakshow behemoths who set the benchmark for flamboyant punker frontmen nationwide – Randy “Biscuit” Turner and Gary Floyd, respectively – the Big Boys and Dicks made some of the best discs of the original HC scene. Music aside, think of the balls these guys had: Gary Floyd, big as a truck, gay as the breeze, stomping around the streets of Texas in 1980 with a hammer-&-sickle t-shirt and coloured mohican flipping the bird to the local frat boys. Or Biscuit prancing around redneck bars in a tutu, a mass of home-made jewelry and make-up belting out “Frat Cars” to the locals. Me, I’ll take that over a Grand Ballroom MC5 gig any day of the week.

Best of all were their assimilation of sounds, mixing up the “thrash” with a variety of rootsy sources stolen from their younger years (both Floyd and Biscuit now being in their 50s). The Dicks hit it hard with a crude, sloppy and thoroughly obnoxious punk, but stewed it in with a bevy of Texan blues and Floyd’s soulful vocals, whilst the Big Boys tempered the skate action with a blend of white-boy funk and ‘60s mod-pop harmonies which sound like they were lifted from old Creation albums.

1980-’86, on Alternative Tentacles, is a Greatest Hits of sorts which compiles material from their SST LP, Kill From the Heart (when is that ever going to be reissued), their These People LP from ’85 (still an awesome slab, despite a heavy San Fran “hippy-punk” vibe which runs through it), their side to the Live at Raoul’s split LP w/ the Big Boys (“Bookstore” nearly out-does GG Allin in the punk-filth stakes) and their essential “Hate the Police” 7” from 1980, a record which, along with the Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum”, ranks as perhaps the great single of its era (though I must admit, blasphemous as it may seem, I’ve always preferred Mudhoney’s version to the original). Life is full of regrets, but here’s one from me: I went to the US for a few months in 1999 to travel around and see the sights. First stop was San Francisco and about the third day I was there I went to the Haight-Ashbury district for a browse. Stepping into an anarchist bookstore (don’t ask me why… hey, it was San Fran) I heard a familiar voice over the shop stereo. “Excuse me, is this Gary Floyd?”, I asked the shop guy. He noticed my accent, said yes, it was his new solo album (an excellent country/blues disc on Interstate Records: Backdoor Preacher Man) and that he was Gary Floyd’s housemate. He saw me as a fan and invited me to Floyd’s birthday party that night. What did I do? I bought the CD, said farewell and never turned up to the bash, too intimidated by the prospect of being at a San Francisco anarchist party held in honour of a genuine Punk Rock Hero. What a fucking idiot.

Skinny Elvis and Fat Elvis are the two volumes of Big Boys recordings Touch & Go compiled and released in the early ‘90s, which finally put together all their hard-to-find 7”s, EPs and LPs on two handy CDs. As with the Dicks and their “Hate the Police” 7”, the Big Boys’ debut 7” EP, Frat Cars, remains a classic document of American subculture at the dawn of the ‘80s and a quintessential slice of US punk. More “good-time vibes” than their angry brethren in LA and DC, the Big Boys were a party band par excellence. The message was always simple: party the fuck down, fuck shit up and let the freak flag fly – a sound philosophy, if ever there was. Early Big Boys was hammered home with a heavy, occasionally daunting pop/New Wave influence before things moved into heavier territory for their last two years (‘83/’84) when their hardcore and funk influences came to the fore. There’s a couple of bogus bass-slapping moments I could gladly live without, but mostly it’s primo fist-shaking thrash, dude, with Biscuit and the band sounding uncannily like a Metal Circus/Everything Falls Part-era Husker Du in parts. Often compared to the Minutemen, in sound and approach, the Big Boys lived by their own rules and set one of the great templates for all short-haired non-conformists in the dawn of Reaganism. For that I thank them... and I didn't even mention Tim Kerr! I, you, we’ve all met our fair share of self-styled US HC boffins in our travels, but for myself there’s always the Great Test which separates the posers from the real deal: do you dig the Dicks and the Big Boys or not?

No comments: