Sunday, January 31, 2010

"JAZZ-PUNK" part three...

Here's a reissue - and purchase - which came totally out of the blue. I used to own West Virginia's Th' Inbred's debut LP, A Family Affair, back in the day. Bought it in '88 and played the life out of it. Sold the thing a decade later when I realised I didn't want any second-string hardcore records cluttering up my house. Bought the reissue just recently when I subsequently discovered that nostalgia-trip second-string hardcore albums aren't such a bad thing. Alternative Tentacles has done a great public service in reissuing the complete discography of this sorely overlooked band as, in hindsight, Th' Inbred were streets ahead of just about anything else happening in hardcore punk in the latter half of the '80s, and whilst such a remark adds up to zip in aesthetic terms (sorry folks, but for me the entire genre pretty much totally ate granola after '86, and has forever since), all context aside, there's some killer tuneage happening here regardless of time, place and genre.
Th' Inbred released two LPs in their lifetime, 1986's A Family Affair and 1988 Kissin' Cousins, a couple of comp' tracks and an EP, then slipped away to oblivion, only to see their efforts run out of print and be largely forgotten by the punker population at large, myself included. What set them apart from a zillion thrash outfits crying for the head of Reagan was their musical chops. These guys could play, and with chops to spare had the smarts to throw in some influences beyond the obvious. Heavily inspired by jazz-damaged Black Flag, especially in their long, drawn-out instrumental passages, some of which sound like early Slint outtakes; the art/noise rad politico angle of Crass; old-time freaksters such as the Fugs, Beefheart and Sun Ra; furious progsters like mid '70s King Crimson as well as the riff-o-rama of Led Zep, Th' Inbred were more than just Fuck You by numbers.
Well, in the lyrical dept. you may laugh at the quaintness of the constant rallying cries against society, religion, work, the middle class and the inherent hypocricies and narrow-mindedness of the hardcore scene (like, duh!), but back when I was a zit-faced teen, maaan, those words spoke to me. They're still speaking to me, coz I keep listening to the damn CD every day. Hmmm... maybe I could make an instrumental dub of this. There's also some heavy Jello damage here in the vocal/lyrical dept., too, as well as a seriously ill-advised stab at funk/rap, so you have been warned if that's the kinda thing which gives you the shivers.
Still, there's 36 tracks here and very little of it blows; some of it is pretty brilliant. If I'd heard this for the very first time right now at this point in my life I doubt I'd be this excited, but the rosy tint of nostalgia washed over me like a sponge bath on my first listen to their Family Affair LP in almost 20 years, and if that's what it takes to put a skip in my step in this day and age, then I'll take what I can get. Less pathetic individuals will simply, on their very first listen, grab their ears around this well-packaged set and dig it for what it is: fun and furious prog/jazz-infused punk rock from the US of A, ca. late '80s, which still packs a punch.

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Click here for an interesting posthumous interview with the band from 1990.
"JAZZ-PUNK" part two...

Talk about kicking against the pricks! Some people just don't get it. Is the re-evaluation process happening for this much-ignored gem underway? My re-evaluation happened long ago. I hope others give it a go. I won't write about it - done that before - instead I'll reprint a review for Black Flag's Process Of Weeding Out 12" EP, a masterpiece of slow-burn avant/improv/jazz/punk/metal which had everyone running for the hills upon release (and an EP I once stated I wished had been a double LP!), from the pages of Ink Disease fanzine ca. 1985. See what I mean? Some people just didn't get it.

Since I'm the only Ink Disease crew member to take Black Flag seriously since "My War", I'm the only one qualified to investigate this all-instrumental album. By now, the sides are drawn on Black Flag's "progression." I'm one of the few that enjoyed "Loose Nut" as much as "Jealous Again." So, with objectivity clutched to my breast in defense, I say this, "There isn't one actual song here." Not one. Listen to "Obliteration" or "I Won't Stick Any of You..." from the past and you know that Greg Ginn is capable of compsoing a real insturmental song. "I Won't Stick..." reminds me of "Wipeout", for Christ's sake, in its adhearence to classic rock'n'roll rules.
There are no rules here, and without rules, instrumentals turn into improvised jamming. Yes, I like Greg's solos. I like his unique guitar sound (the more dischordant, the better) and believe you me, you'll get plenty of it - too much. Why didn't they concentrate a bit more on developing a tune or two? All style and no substance. More stuff like this and Black Flag can join Rush as "progressive metallers."
-Brady Rifkin (from Ink Disease #10, Winter 1985)

Thanks to the folks at Kill From The Heart for keeping this one on file.
You can't keep a good man down... you can't even keep me down! Yep, after pulling a Syd Barrett and claiming I wanted to sneak away from the (admittedly dim) limelight of doing this blog, live a quiet family life and forget about all this rock 'n' roll shenanigans and simply enjoy music for the first time in a long time as nothing more than a FAN (I even told friends I was pulling the plug on the label, but reneged on that once I heard some Chrome Dome and Honey Ride Me A Goat and couldn't resist the temptation to release their wares on the LD imprint), I realised such expectations could never be fulfilled. I'm not sure who said it, but whoever did I gotta thank 'em for these words of wisdom which have forever stuck in my craw: music is not a spectator sport. I can't just sit by, watch things happen and not be involved, not have my say and not mouth off about the things which move me, both in the negative and positive. Of course there's a healthy dose of ego involved here, and anyone who puts pen to paper, picks up a guitar or places a mic in front of them and says ego is not a motivating factor at all is full of it. Just as long as it's not the primary reason why we do these things. The fact is: I need a mouthpiece. In my day-to-day life it's generally work (which is music, so there's no escaping that regardless) then trying to cope with fathering two kids under the age of three, and in my downtime trying to squeeze in a few tunes or a vintage horror flick to unwind to. On top of that there's also my ever-diminishing "social life", though that seems to be taking up less and less of my time these days. Other than (once again) attempting to get another 1/4-arsed band off the ground of late, this blog has been my sole form of expression - in a wider sense - for a long time, and the moment I threw in the towel, guilt overwhlemed me and I regretted my decision. All the nice words people wrote to me were both a blessing and a curse. I'm not emailing anyone about Lexicon Devil's return, and this is the only announcement I'll make about it. Anything more would reek of self-importance and pomposity and, contrary to popular belief, I don't seek any kind of limelight. This blog will exist whether two or 2,000 people read it. I'm doing it for myself. Certain things I must get off my chest and this is the best vehicle for it.

SOME CALL IT "JAZZ-PUNK"...

There are some bands for whom I can honestly claim I was first off the bat to cling on to, do some cheerleading for and to rally the masses around. In most cases that rallying was all for naught, but that's not the point. Perhaps not internationally, but at least domestically. I think I was the first person Down Under to put ink to paper and heap praise on the likes of Skullflower, the Grifters, Dawson, Cul de Sac, Supreme Dicks and others back in the day. More recently, I'd probably throw a band like Honey Ride Me A Goat in there. If there's someone else out there who did it all before me, then I tip my hat and admit defeat. And on the other hand, I can also lay claim to likely being the last guy off the boat to shower praise on the band known as the LAUGHING CLOWNS. They existed (before they reunited a couple of years back) from 1979-1984, and were, as I'm sure many of you know, born from the ashes of the original Saints, as Ed Kuepper split the group and was intent on focusing his jazz fixation into the context of rock 'n' roll. Expectations were high - heck, I'd rate the Saints' first two albums as the two finest Australian rock 'n' roll albums ever - and for many, his new band was simply a weird proposition many old fans couldn't get their heads around. The Laughing Clowns played and toured (and recorded) almost constantly throughout their lifespan, in a career trajectory that somewhat mirrors that of Black Flag: confound old fans, record lots of material in the meantime, develop a penchant for a certain brand of jazz-infused high-energy rock and split in acrimony, only to have your work reassessed in many years time by a new breed of fan. Well, perhaps that comparison is drawing a long bow, but regardless, their Cruel, But Fair 3CD (complete discography) set on the Hot label, which was released back in the mid '00s and only discovered by myself 3 months ago, is something which has scarcely left the stereo since.
Funnily enough, I did buy a secondhand Laughing Clowns LP about a dozen years ago: Throne Of Blood/Reign In Terror. It may sound like a death metal album to you, but it happens to be a compilation from 1981 which puts together a bunch of early EPs, and for whatever reason, it had zero impact on me. I figured I was "supposed" to like it, but did the mandatory spin from start to finish, shrugged my shoulders at what I gathered to be its tepid musical content, and filed it away for what I figured to be eternity. Fact is, Laughing Clowns are not an easy band to get your brain around, but once they click, the rewards are incredibly fruitful, and warranted of a lifetime of listening. For one, and let's be honest: Kuepper does not possess an incredible set of pipes. On first listen, he comes across like a tone-deaf Bryan Ferry with a bad case of the mumbles. At his best, he possesses a kind of Mark E. Smith laconic drawl. My purchasing of this set was urged on by a co-worker who brought his copy to work and proceeded to play it endlessly - almost on loop for a month - until the osmosis took effect. I began to borrow it, play it on a similar loop and then decided I should just make the investment myself.
After three months' appraisal, after having witnessed them play a few weeks back at the Forum Theatre supporting the Dirty Three, and as a man old enough to know better, I can state with a straight face that the Laughing Clowns now rate in my frustrated/ing brain as one of the all-time great Australian bands. Utterly unique, totally uncompromising and, at least within Australian music, unprecedented. On a surface level one could say they bore similarities to other bands of their time; there's hints of The Pop Group and The Fall, and the jazz angle, especially Kuepper's guitar, has a major James Ulmer "thing" going on, but the sum of its parts is something completely different. Kuepper had been listening to "out" jazz since the early '70s when he first discovered Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane and Archie Shepp via his Stooges/MC5 obsession. For a teenager to indulge in such musical quirks in no less than Brisbane, Australia at the dawn of the 1970s is no small feat. There are cultural outposts and then there is 1970s Queensland. I have friends of a similar age to Kuepper who hopped aboard the punk bandwagon in the late '70s, and they can attest to it. Some have stated to me that to be a "cool" teen at the time in Australia was to listen to the likes of Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa. The Stooges or the MC5 were like an alien lifeforce (unless you were friends with Rob Younger, Deniz Tek or Nick Cave and his cohorts). To then make the leap to American free jazz wasn't even on the map! That thirst for new sounds abounds in the music of the Laughing Clowns.
But anyway, the key to the Laughing Clowns' greatness is also drummer Jeffrey Wegener; he and Kuepper were the only mainstays throughout the band's lifespan. Wegener cut his teeth in seminal (but seldom heard) Melbourne punk band the Young Charlatans, who also featured Ollie Olsen and a pre-Boys Next Door/Birthday Party Rowland S. Howard (RIP). Usually hailed as one of the great percussionists of his day, his ceaseless invention behind the kit, and his ability to embellish songs with just the right kick or beat is legendary and wholly deserving of its tag. To my mind, he's more Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich than Sunny Murray - his drum rolls and patterns part of an older tradition and less free-form than he's usually given credit for - but it's that syncopation and sense of rhythm which never sees the band falling off the rails into self-indulgent jams.
There's 48 songs here, and not one I'd dismiss. Every song has a hook which eventually drags you in. "The Only One That Knows", a seven-and-a-half minute epic which runs from a horn-drenched opening to slow balladry to a Saints-esque punkish skree right on through to avant-jazz-damaged punk/jazz squawl a la Ornette/Ulmer/Prime Time is the one I'll stake bets on. The Laughing Clowns didn't sound like a "post-punk" band; their approach was too mature for that, too well-thought-out, but the urgency was absolutely there. Nothing they ever did was simply for pose. There's three CDs of genius which awaits, and if one person purchases it on the strength of this write-up, then at least I can honestly say I wasn't the last man to catch on.