Its strange the stuff that ends up being considered historically valid. Was Led Zeppelin really better than Television? Were the Beatles way better than the Sonics? I dunno, i tend to find the more innovative and inspiring a band was, the more obscure they seem to be. its like the popular bands could only skim the barest bit of weirdness from the real deal bands that were their peers and that mainstream popularity is like choosing an icecream flavor by committee. . . you end up with vanilla because there’s only three people who like rocky road and 2 who like mint chocolate chip, so the only thing they agree on the most bland middle of the road crap.
As a guy who lived through the weirdness of the 1980’s and 1990’s music scene I was turned onto some pretty out there wackiness, sure I loved the punk and mainstream heavy stuff, but what really twisted my noggin was the stuff that would have been described as “avant garde” in the olden days, but came simply to be known as ‘underground’. here’s a couple that really inspired me.
Big Black-these days having Steve Albini produce your album means you will have a guy twiddling the knobs who is famous as a producer, but the insane juggernaut known as Big Black was his best musical stomping ground in my opinion. Guitars tuned, tweaked, and tortured to sound like nothing before or since and crazed lyrics all told from someone elses point of view (a trait that got them in plenty of political hot water when folks assumed their story like songs were personal opinions) all backed by a relentless drum machine beat. Part machine, part madness, part heroin fueled experimentation. Their songs evoke punk power and rage but with a mathematical precision and pre-industrial machine-like edge that has yet to be emulated since. In 1988 they released the amazing album “songs about fucking” and upon hearing it they decided to tour once more and then disband, in Albinis words “we wanted to break up after releasing our masterpiece, not fade out with weaker and weaker efforts”. Amen to that.
The Swans– Some bands have a distinctive singer, some have a distinctive sound, but the Swans had a distinctive emotion! namely; desperation. Coming out of the “No Wave’ movement centered in New York, the swans began with old school industrial repetition (though all with analog instruments) that owed more to an attempt to make music that sounded like the crazy voices of repetition through a schizos head. Songs consisted of chanted phrases about things like money or power or sex but in that way that makes it all seem disgusting and desperate, there was a profound strangeness to the music and nothing could clear a room faster than putting one of their albums like “Power” or “Sex” on. Later they began embracing more traditional music styles but with singer Micheal Giras monotone and the haunting female vocals of Jarboe they could take a teletubbies song and make it sound beautifully, heartbreakingly depressingly amazing. Famous in my book for creating a version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” that makes Joy Divisions sound like some boy scouts doing Kumbaya. As a final note, the two aforementioned vocalists went on to form the band “World of Skin” that is so sad (but lovely) that if it were played on the radio I’m sure the suicide rate would quadruple overnight.
Cop Shoot Cop– Two bass players, a synthesizer, and some sheet metal. Oh and did I mention that the lyrics are as witty and bone breakingly gritty as Bukowski at his finest? ( like “So we stagger on the bridge in anticipation/ lethal joy at the abomination/ new words for the same old affliction/ black lace and a bad complexion” from the song ‘Pity the Bastard’ off the album Consumer Revolt) This incredible band released one album after another, never losing the power or sheer in your face blast of their music and without losing the observational acid of their lyrics. Once again using ‘industrial’ sounds at a time when that meant beat-upon metal instead of synthesized samples, the had a pure bombastic power which was only enhanced by their technical smoothness and ironic mockery of the world at large. Like nothing else.
The Jesus Lizard– You might think GG Allen is the ‘craziest’ frontman to ever insult and audience. Nope, sorry chum, GG was nothing but an alcoholic with a microphone and a skeezy reputation to uphold, the Jesus Lizards David Yow on the other hand. . .is a fucking lunatic. He wasn’t content to act like on on stage either, he actually Sounded like one too on every song on every Jesus Lizard album. the Music banged along, 1/3 blues, 1/3 punk, and 1/3 pure noise while David did his nutty ass yowl/roar over it. The result was pure chaos that held together as tightly as a prog rock band but with more energy and power than a dozen Slayers put together. Strange and wonderful, raw and annoying and yet so compelling that you couldn’t go a day without playing them.
The Butthole Surfers– Oh you might think you know the Butthole Surfers from their one radio hit, Pepper, but let me assure you that that tame (though catchy as hell) number cannot hope to hint at the madness that was 1990’s era Butthole Surfers. Fast, really fast punkish guitars and relentless bombastic drums and crazy ass Texas twanged lyrics fed through all sorts of home-brewed reverb, distortion, and delay. Probably the closest thing to being on an acid trip that a sober person could attain. Playing these guys within earshot of mom or dad would almost guarantee a trip to the funny farm and/or some rehab. Once my own mom burst in on us as my brother and i sat enjoying “Locust Abortion technician” and hollered “If you aren’t going to play that at the right speed then don’t play it at all!” She refused to believe that they sounded like that on purpose. . .
Honorable Mention: Alien Sex Fiend,
the Wolfgang Press,
Chris and Cosey,