Into The West

You might have noticed that it has been a little quiet here at the website for a couple of days since I completed my big Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands writing spree. But not quiet in real life for me at all, as Marcia and I spent the last two days driving from Des Moines to Las Vegas, helping our daughter Katelin and her beloved John move into their new home here. John’s dad drove a moving truck, we rented and drove a (fully loaded) SUV, and Katelin and John drove their (fully loaded) car with their two cats. (One of whom, The Bumble, may be familiar to long-time readers here).

It was a long trip, but we traversed some truly stunning countryside, and everyone and everything arrived safe and healthy, most importantly. Katelin and John are going to be living in a great house in the Summerlin community at the western side of the Vegas metro area. Their surroundings are stunning, mere minutes by car from home to Red Rocks Natural Conservation Area, a perfect place for such avid rock climbers and outdoorsy people to spend their time. We are excited about their new adventures, and look forward to experiencing them vicariously through their reports in the years ahead.

Marcia and I are going to have our own little adventure for the next couple of weeks, heading up into the Yosemite and Lake Tahoe area once we finish helping here, then back over to Utah to visit the Logan and Moab areas for a spell. We are still hunkering down, masking up, and doing all the on-our-own things we need to do during this our national time of disease (in both literal and figurative terms). Safety first, even on the road. Maybe most especially on the road.

In any event, posting may be a bit sparse here through July, but I’ll eventually do my usual photo journal for those who like such things. Today I close with a pair of snaps taken of John and Katelin this morning when I went for a ramble with them in Red Rocks. Marcia and I are most happy for and proud of them as they begin this next new exciting chapter of their lives!

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #14: Epilogue

As promised in yesterday’s King Crimson installment of the Favorite Songs by Favorite Bands series, I close the project today with a little summary wrap-up and clean-up for posterity’s sake, and also to satisfy my obsessive sense of order and tidiness when it comes to my website and its contents.

When I first thought and wrote about The “Favorite Band” Question in 2011, I didn’t necessarily envision revisiting it in any meaningful fashion. But then at some point I realized that my reigning champion had shifted, so I did an update to the article in March 2019. After returning from our March 2020 trip to Florida, where we watched everything falling apart in a viral fog, I found myself looking for interesting writing projects to fill dramatically increased time at home, and this further, deeper revisiting of the The “Favorite Band” Question seemed like a winner.

Having finished it now, I do indeed feel like it was a gratifying, worthwhile undertaking. It forced me to really think about the hows, whens and whys of my evolving musical interests, and it was gratifying that my quick gut sense original estimations of my lifelong musical timeline were pretty spot on, with only some small tweaks required to the beginning and ending years for a couple of artists. It was also enjoyable to revisit all of these catalogs and to consider which works move me the most, right here, right now. In many cases, those lists are dramatically different than they would have been had I created them during the full fervor of my fandom in real time.

When I created the original list in 2011, I made a conscious decision to actively embrace that it was about bands, in the normal usage of that word within the generally-understood rock music idiom, so I did not consider solo artists. (I suppose Simon and Garfunkel were a marginal call in terms of being a “band,” but they were so seminal to my early listening that it was hard to exclude them and start instead with their successors, Steppenwolf). I may, at some point, do a similar project for the singer-songwriter soloist types who have most moved me throughout my life. Off the cuff, though, I think it may be harder to specifically identify any one leading individual artist over some long spans in my listening career, and it also may be a judgment call on who qualifies, e.g. Nick Cave was a deep favorite for a long, long time, but because he was recording and performing as “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds” (who were, and are, definitely a cohesive, definable band), would he qualify? Hmmm.

That soloist project would, I think, rectify one thing that I didn’t really like about the original band listing: it’s much more of a white person sausage party than has been reflective of my real-time listening habits over the years. Only six of the twelve bands dissected included strong contributions from women, and people of color are scarce among the final written roster’s membership. That monochrome palette has never been typical of the overall musical environment which I have created around myself, because I am always listening to a variety of music by a diverse and global array of artists, and not just obsessing about and only spinning my then-favorite bands. So while I do feel like my listing is an honest and accurate assessment of the top of my pile over time, I suppose I would have liked it a bit more had the actual final favorites list reflected my overall listening diversity a bit more. I know that the solo artist list would do so.

It’s also interesting to me to reflect on when and how this list will shift forward again with a new titlist atop the pile. I suppose that if/when King Crimson went back into an inactive phase, my brain would probably shift gears toward a new favorite band. It’s fairly important to me to not be in a static look-backward mode, because anticipation of new work from a favorite artist is a key part of the experience. I suppose it’s also possible that we could have a Grover Cleveland experience with a second non-consecutive term by a former favorite band. A few of them are still going concerns, and a couple of them could conceivably re-emerge into activity after long fallow spells. I noted in one of the introductory articles to this series that Favorite Bands may be akin to economic recessions, in that you can’t know for sure that you are into them until well after they have begun. So who knows. Maybe something’s bubbling to the top of the pile right now, but I just haven’t gained clarity on its emergence yet. Stay tuned, as presumably at some point, I’ll add another chapter to this piece.

For those readers who discover this thing in the years ahead, rather than in real time, I’ve assembled all of the links related to it in one convenient place, below. Feel free to trawl to your hearts’ content. Or feel free to consider your own lifetime of listening, maybe developing your own favorite band (and/or soloist) chronologies, and writing up your thoughts about them. I’d love to read your report, so shout my way if/when you get on it!

FRAMING ARTICLES

The “Favorite Band” Question (2011 Original)

The “Favorite Band” Question (Revisited in 2019)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands: Introduction

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands: Epilogue

BANDS EVALUATED AND FAVORITE SONG LISTS

Simon & Garfunkel (Initial musical sentience-1971)

Steppenwolf (1971-1973)

Wings (1973-1976)

Steely Dan (1976-1978)

Jethro Tull (1978-1982)

XTC (1982-1984)

Butthole Surfers (1984-1994)

Hawkwind (1994-1998)

The Residents (1998-2004)

The Fall (2004-2009)

Napalm Death (2009-2016)

King Crimson (2016-present)

Note: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #13: King Crimson

Today’s installment of the chronologically-structured Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series finally carries us into 2020 (and maybe beyond). The path to getting here was a long and circuitous one, both within these articles and in real-time real life. With this as a capstone piece, I can see that some listening and interpretative themes have emerged and been explored over the course of the series, several of which now fittingly serve as the structural warp and weft in my personalized King Crimson tapestry. Which is quite beautiful, and large. Let’s give it a look-see, shall we?

I first became aware of King Crimson during my weird years at Mitchel Field, 1976 to 1980, in which time the group were not an ongoing concern, nor ever expected to be so again. I came at them obliquely via the activities of several bands featuring their alumni, first and most prominently Emerson, Lake and Palmer, whose 1971 album Tarkus was and remains a favorite. (If you’re in the mood for a deep dig into why I so appreciate that and so many other classic progressive rock albums, you might enjoy my popular March of the Mellotrons piece). I first heard Tarkus in the listening room at Nassau Community College’s library; that campus was based within repurposed military buildings on Mitchel Field when we first moved there, then in what seemed like a space-aged new complex built before our eyes over the next couple of years. I will admit to being first attracted to Tarkus solely because of its most astounding warmadillo record sleeve. Marketing matters.

As I further explored the ELP catalog, I noted that the live version of Tarkus‘ title suite on Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends – Ladies and Gentlemen (1974) ended differently than the studio version, with a bonus movement called “Epitaph.” Being a credits nerd, I read that this supplemental piece was composed by “Lake / Fripp / McDonald / Giles /Sinfield.” The first name was Greg Lake of ELP, duh, and I knew the last name was ELP lyricist Pete Sinfield. The other three, I didn’t recognize at first, but eventually I figured out that those credits represented the first incarnation of a group called King Crimson, and that the song “Epitaph” had appeared on their 1969 debut album, In The Court of the Crimson King. (Thinking back today, I presumed that I might have tumbled to that fact through one of the amazing Pete Frame’s amazing Rock Family Trees, but his very useful “Crimson and Roxy” broadsheet wasn’t published until 1979, which was too late. So I don’t know how I figured that out. Oh, how confusing and haphazard things were before the Internet!)

Having become aware of King Crimson, it seemed like they were suddenly inescapable in my musical world, though I had not yet knowingly heard them. (I know that’s an alien concept for younger readers, who have always been able to hear whatever piqued their curiosities, instantly). Foreigner issued their immensely popular debut album in early 1976, and member Ian McDonald had been one of those “Epitaph” players and co-composers. I quite liked fellow rock radio mainstays Bad Company, whose bassist, Boz Burrell, was also a Crimson alumnus. I read a long article about Steeleye Span at some point that explained that their bassist, Rick Kemp, had been slated to be Crimson’s four-string man before withdrawing at the last minute, freeing up the slot for Burrell.  I got into Yes (the band), whose founding drummer, Bill Bruford, later became a Crim. I saw a band called UK open for Jethro Tull, and their brilliant bassist-vocalist, John Wetton, was also a Crimson alumnus. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

A further significant prod pointing me Crimson-ward came while sitting in my bedroom listening to WLIR (92.7 FM), which was a truly brilliant radio station in terms of its free-form programming at the time. A very weird song with words about a “baby on fire” began to ooze out of my speakers one night, and I was transfixed, most especially when one of the most insanely different and exciting guitar solos I’d ever heard sprawled out over several minutes of the song’s run. I would easily cite that as one of the most memorable moments of my radio listening career. It truly moved and astounded me. Thankfully, the DJ did ID the track on the air when it had run its course (sometimes that didn’t happen, cue again “confusing life before the Internet”): it was called “Baby’s On Fire,” it was by Brian Eno, and the guitar solo had been played by Robert Fripp, the alumnus who trumped all other King Crimson alumni as the only member to have served throughout the band’s brilliant, tumultuous 1969-1974 run.

I tried to find that song at the Nassau Community College library, but it wasn’t there, so I was forced to hunt it down and buy it at a record store at the Roosevelt Field Mall instead. It came from a 1974 Eno album called Here Come The Warm Jets, which had one of those cover images capable of making a 1970s teenage boy embarrassed when presenting it to the female clerk at the counter, ahem. But I had to have it, short-term shame be damned. It was a truly brilliant record, one of my all-time favorites to this day, and I played it and (most especially) “Baby’s On Fire” over and over and over again in the months and years ahead.

I finally heard my first full King Crimson record around that time, too. It was the live 1975 album USA, released after the final incarnation of the band (Fripp, Wetton and Bruford) had ceased operations. (Violinist David Cross was also a member of the Crim when USA was recorded, but his live parts were over-dubbed for the USA release by UK and Roxy Music’s Eddie Jobson, Cross having apparently been sonically over-powered during the original performance by the muscle and volume of his band mates). I have weirdly specific memories of hearing the album for the first time, at the home of an older Mitchel Field kid who owned the record. I can see where his house was, I can see his bedroom, I can see him, I can see myself listening to and discussing the record while reading the liner notes, I can remember listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)” a few times just before we spun USA (there were mind-altering substances involved), but I just can’t for the life of me remember the dude’s name. I owe him a debt of gratitude, but I guess it doesn’t matter in the bigger scheme of things, because USA itself got the job done by finally, actively tuning me into King Crimson as I band I must attend to and collect.

The first LP of theirs I purchased was Starless and Bible Black (1974), and I acquired their other extant studio discs in the months that followed. As is often the case with me, I most liked the “wrong” albums at first: the aforementioned Starless and Bible Black (which confusingly does not include one of their best known songs, “Starless,” which features that album’s title in its soaring chorus) and 1973’s Lizard. Conventional wisdom, then and now, would cite the 1969 debut, Red (1974) and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973) as the era’s highlights. I adore all of them now, but probably still listen to some cuts from those original two favorites more than I do anything else in their catalog. Because me. Because weird.

Since King Crimson were fallow in the late ’70s, I also began exploring other Fripp and Eno offerings, working my way through their releases (together and/or apart) with David Bowie, Roxy Music, Peter Gabriel, their duo projects, and their solo catalogs. I found Fripp’s work at the time to be particularly fascinating not only for the music he was making and the ways in which he was making it (his “Frippertronics” guitar and tape processing techniques were particularly revelatory), but also for the philosophizing around his work that often appeared in the music press and in the liner notes of his records. He clearly thought deeply about what he was doing, and he clearly had a plan: “The Drive to 1981.”

The end stages of that era found Fripp assembling a quartet called Discipline, which featured Crimson/Yes alum Bruford and Americans Tony Levin (bass, Chapman Stick) and Adrian Belew (guitar, vocals). At some point in their early live and recording processes, Fripp felt the spirit of King Crimson moving over the waters, and Discipline was renamed as the next/new installment in the Crimson story, the group’s original name being repurposed as the title and title track of their 1981 album, Discipline, which I received for Christmas that year. It was brilliant, though very different from any prior incarnation of the band. I obsessed over it for much of my senior year in high school (along with XTC’s catalog), often dropping clever inside cites and quotes into articles I wrote for the school’s newspaper, for which I was features editor. Does it count as a joke if nobody knows you’re telling it?

Robert Fripp’s thinking, seeing, and writing over the years about what constitutes, and what does not constitute, King Crimson are unique, distinctive, and provocative. (He was a very early online diarist, as I was, “blogging” before there was a term for it, so it has generally been easy to follow what he’s doing, and what he thinks about it). To boil a big body of thought and writing down to a short explanation here, Fripp understands King Crimson to be an elemental force that exists beyond the tangible, day-to-day experiences of any of the players within the group, Fripp included. When King Crimson music needs to be created and heard in the world, a King Crimson band emerges, maybe fully capable of delivering the music King Crimson offers, or maybe not. When King Crimson music does not need to be created and heard, its human enablers go about their business in other ways, until the organizing elemental calls them together again, through a moment of seeing in Fripp’s consciousness.

Some may find such sentiments precious or pretentious, but I love and respect them, as I do the very tangible actions that Fripp has taken as a human channel for a spiritual essence in bringing his personal work (which I believe he perceives as distinct from, though empowering of, his professional work as a guitarist) into the world to inform and inspire others. First and foremost among such manifestations were his long-running Guitar Craft courses, which formally ended in 2010, though their focus and philosophy has continued to unfold in years hence, with Fripp at work as I write today on a book called The Guitar Circle. I count him as one of the greatest thinkers and writers about the experience of being a working musician (Pere Ubu’s David Thomas is another such inspiration for me), so I can’t wait to score a copy when it is released.

In terms of the (physical) King Crimson, that Fripp-Belew-Bruford-Levin line-up lasted about three years, and issued three albums, and then King Crimson flew away again. It returned in the mid-1990s and lasted again until about 2004, with three studio albums released in that run under the King Crimson imprimatur, along with a variety of shows and projects under the “Crimson ProjeKCts” rubric, which fractalized what was then a six-member ensemble into various experimental and exploratory units. I first experienced Robert Fripp in person (along with Belew and ’90s member Trey Gunn) at a ProjeKCt Two concert in Albany in 1998, and it was a deeply moving experience.

I caught King Crimson “proper” for the first time in 2008 during a brief tour by a short-lived line-up of the group who never recorded in the studio together. Following that tour, Fripp found himself ever-more deeply embroiled in distressing legal and financial battles related to negligent and/or criminal artist mismanagement and illegal file-sharing of the back catalogs of Crimson and a variety of other artists, his wife, Toyah Wilcox, among them. (Beyond the many other things that I admire about Robert Fripp, his openly and oft-stated admiration for and adoration of his life’s greatest partner resonates very strongly with me, being similarly blessed to share such a primary partnership, and also being candidly and regularly open about how important that relationship is to my well-being and fullest enjoyment of life). At some point around 2010, Fripp was so defeated by the ugliness and chicanery of the music business that he announced his retirement as a working musician. That was sad news to me, though I understood how it came to pass, and respected the decision.

But, then, sometimes the saddest parts of a story have to happen before the best parts can be unveiled. In this case, Fripp and his long-time business partner David Singleton achieved unexpected successes and settlements in their various legal battles that provided some restitution for prior malfeasance, and cleared some paths forward for various issues and reissues. Singleton and Fripp have managed Discipline Global Mobile (DGM) together since 1992, building a uniquely structured record label and production company model while strictly hewing to five business aims, stated with typical Fripp directness and panache thusly:

  • The first aim of DGM is to help bring music into the world which would otherwise be unlikely to do so, or under conditions prejudicial to the music and / or musicians.
  • The second aim of DGM is to operate in the market place, while being free of the values of the market place.
  • The third aim of DGM is to help the artists and staff of DGM achieve what they wish for themselves.
  • The fourth aim of DGM is to find its audience.
  • The fifth aim of DGM is to be a model of ethical business in an industry founded on exploitation, oiled by deceit, riven with theft and fueled by greed.

With the psychic burdens of litigation and financial skullduggery lifted, Fripp’s inner antennae began to perceive King Crimson moving in the world again as a living beast, and not just as an historical figure, lovingly preserved through a variety of exceptional DGM remixes and remasters of the studio catalog, and a rich assortment of “Collectors’ Club” releases of concert recordings from throughout the band’s career. Fripp’s moment of seeing, when it finally came, was not just of Any Old Beast, but of a specific Seven-Headed one: a drum trio of Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison (both alums of earlier Crims) and Bill Rieflin (a personal favorite from my Wax Trax! fanboy phase, and a long-time friend of and collaborator with Fripp and Toyah) would form the group’s front-line, while Fripp, Levin, reeds-man Mel Collins (veteran of 1970s Crimson) and singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk (who had appeared prominently on a Crimson ProjeKCt album called A Scarcity of Miracles in 2011) would form the back-line. As planning and rehearsals unfolded, it was also divulged that this Crim would be the first ever to select and perform songs from across the entire body of the band’s catalog, including works that had never been played on stage to date.

It looked most strange on paper, sure, but boy oh boy did it work tremendously well in concert. Marcia and I caught the Seven-Headed Beast for the first time on September 25, 2014 at the Vic Theater in Chicago, having driven up from Des Moines (where we lived at the time) for a most excellent gig, and a most excellent urban experience that directly contributed to us moving to Chicago in 2015. The Crim later announced a show at the Chicago Theater for June 28, 2017, mere blocks from our apartment, but we had already booked a trip for that date to Amsterdam, so missed it. I eagerly awaited reports on the show, which the group unanimously stated was magical, perhaps the best they’d ever played. I swallowed a sob at not having been there, but was glad to learn soon thereafter that the DGM brain trust was so moved by the show that they re-arranged planned release schedules to issue the Live in Chicago album mere months later. It was, indeed, a brilliant show.

The next time King Crimson were in the States, they skipped Chicago, so we road-tripped up to Milwaukee and caught them there instead. Then, during our very last weekend in Chicago together (we moved back to Des Moines in 2019), Marcia and I caught the Crim at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theater, probably my favorite live music venue in the Second City. (My full review of that show is here). King Crimson (admirably, thankfully) forbid photography during their concerts, but at show’s end, ace photographer Tony Levin will lift and display his own camera to snap the audience, and that was the cue that we were free to make our own photos of the group as they took their bows. Here’s TLev’s photo of the crowd at the end of that show. Click to enlarge, and look carefully at the front row, just left of center. There’s a happy music nerd you might know there, along with his wonderful concert companion.

For our two most-recent Crimson shows, Marcia and I plumped for the “Royal Package,” which got us those great seats, along with pre-show remarks for a small group of attendees from Robert Fripp, David Singleton, Tony Levin (in Chicago) and Bill Rieflin (Milwaukee). We were surprised and pleased to see Rieflin that night, the final show of that Tour leg, because he had been unable to perform with the group for unstated personal reasons, having been replaced by the wonderful Jeremy Stacey as center drummer and keyboardist. The talks were gracious and informative, all around, further cementing the emotional and intellectual bonds that had, by now, fully elevated the Crim to the top of my personal musical pile, where they sit to this day.

Some time after the Milwaukee gig, we learned that Bill Rieflin’s wife, artist Francesca Sundsten had passed away. (She had created album covers and on-stage art work for DGM and for the Seven-Headed Beast, which actually grew an Eighth Head for a time, when Stacey drummed and Rieflin returned to focus solely on keyboards). We, and most, presumed that to have been the cause for Rieflin’s absence. Alas, earlier this year we learned that presumption to be wrong, as Bill also passed away after a long battle with cancer, which had bedeviled him since before Crimson’s re-rising in 2014. (Greg Lake, John Wetton, Boz Burrell and his ’70s battery mate Ian Wallace have also spun off this mortal coil during the course of my Crim Fan career). It was remarkable to see the out-pouring of love for Rieflin in the weeks that followed, not just from within the Crimson family, but across the wide swath of bands and fandoms he’d touched over the years while working with Ministry, Swans, R.E.M., Robyn Hitchcock, KMFDM, and many others. Quite a legacy. I am glad to have had the chance to see him when we did.

King Crimson were scheduled to tour again this summer, but, as with so many other things, a certain virus has laid waste to that undertaking. The calendar currently shows the tour rescheduled for 2021, so we’ll keep fingers crossed that the binding spirit of King Crimson holds its human vessels together until then, and that the pandemic abates to the point where they can safely share that glorious music from elsewhere with the world in which we all live. I’ll be ready for it, when and if it happens.

And so, with that, I move to the final listing of “Favorite Songs” for this series. As with The Fall, I have defaulted to the original studio recordings of each of these songs, though many folks may prefer different live interpretations. I’d mentioned the Live in Chicago album above as a particularly epic release from the current incarnation of the Crims, and I’d also cite Meltdown: Live in Mexico City (2018) as another great release, perhaps a perfect place to revisit or discover the group’s masterful canon. I must note that I have a special personal bond with one of the songs cited below: “The Night Watch,” which features a text by 1972-1974 lyricist Richard Palmer-James describing his encounter with and reflections on Rembrandt’s epic painting of the same name. I actually bear the opening line of that song as a tattoo on my left forearm. The photo below shows me sharing it with one of the master’s self-portraits in London:

I’ll probably do a brief epilogue post to this series just to organize some links and themes, but at this point today, let me offer you one final “Happy Listening!” exhortation, and also say “Thank You!” to those who have taken the time to share in this re-exploration of the the highest points of my lifetime of listening. I appreciate you.

#10. “Frame By Frame,” from Discipline (1995)

#9. “Cat Food,” from In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)

#8. “Sailor’s Tale,” from Islands (1971)

#7. “Elephant Talk,” from Discipline (1981)

#6. “The Great Deceiver,” from Starless and Bible Black (1974)

#5. “Cirkus,” from Lizard (1970)

#4. “The Night Watch,” from Starless and Bible Black (1974)

#3. “Starless,” from Red (1974)

#2. “21st Century Schizoid Man,” from In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

#1. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two,” from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)

Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.

Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #12: Napalm Death

In the Butthole Surfers installment of this Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series, I discussed the importance of record labels in shaping my listening tastes at various times. The Chrysalis Records catalog was a great vehicle for my explorations in the 1970s, and in the early ’80s, the SST and Alternative Tentacles labels provided outstanding outlets for my obsessive completist tendencies.

Fast forward a few years, and Chicago’s Wax Trax! Records played a similar role for me, with an outstanding cabal of artists in their stable, anchored by Al Jourgensen’s Ministry and his gazillion related spin-off projects. Wax Trax!’s sonic sphere was largely filled with industrial music: hammering beats you could dance to, decorated with crunchy guitars and electronics, and shouty voices. Note that our American take on “industrial music”varies a bit from the earlier U.K. use of the term, rolled out to describe the likes of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, who were more machine-oriented and less beat-dependent than the acts that followed them. That said, there were artists who embraced and succeeded in both versions of the genre, and I adored the full spectrum of the form, conspicuously consuming Wax Trax!’s commercial output until they sadly over-extended themselves in the early ’90s, watering down their stock and spiraling into bankruptcy.

As Wax Trax! were beginning their death spiral, I remained interested in industrial music, even if I started seeking it out from other sources. Sometime soon after we moved to Idaho in 1989, I stumbled across a tremendous new album called Streetcleaner by Godflesh. They were a British duo (plus occasional other collaborators) who offered thunderous machine-based fare, and strong, socially-relevant vocals/lyrics from one Justin Broadrick. I loved that record, and a magazine review at the time noted that Broadrick had previously (though briefly) been a member of the groups Head of David and Napalm Death, so I decided to check them out too.

I landed Head of David’s Dustbowl (1988) first. It was okay, but not great. I was actually surprised to discover the Broadrick was the group’s drummer, since he was serving as the singer-guitarist-programmer for Godflesh. Next up, I nabbed Napalm Death’s debut album, Scum (1987), and it was a weirder proposition. Side One of the record was performed by a trio within which Broadrick served as singer-guitarist. The music featured loads of short, sharp shocks, most amusingly “You Suffer,” which the Guinness Book of World Records later recognized as the shortest song ever recorded, at precisely 1.316 seconds in length. (Its lyrics: “You suffer. But why?”) Side Two of the record featured a quartet without Broadrick. In fact, drummer Mick Harris was the only common player across both sides of the record. That second half of the album was a different sonic beast, more guttural, less thrashy than the Broadrick side. Hmmm.

At bottom line for me at the time, it wasn’t really industrial, which is what I wanted in the moment, nor was it quite in the pocket of the types of metal that I was enjoying then (think Rollins Band), so it didn’t really knock my socks off in any way. Just out of a sense of due diligence, I did look into Napalm’s next album, 1988’s From Enslavement to Obliteration, and noted that it was the sludgier Broadrick-free quartet line-up who had moved the group forward, only with a new bass player named Shane Embury. I opted to pass, and went looking for industrial and metal stuff elsewhere.

Side note: Perceptive readers might note the seeming incongruity of the statements “we moved to Idaho” and “I nabbed Napalm Death’s debut album,” given the Famous Spud State’s conservative reputation. (We used to greet visitors at the airport by saying “Welcome to Idaho Falls. The current time is 1953.”) It’s true it wasn’t a musical hot bed, unless you liked country or bluegrass. I did all of my music shopping during our two years as Idahoans at a fairly generic mall record store called Music Land. (Our local mall’s big claim to fame was that it was the largest indoor shopping space between Seattle and the Twin Cities. I am sure that bugged Minot, Butte, Rapid City and Yakima to no end). While Music Land certainly didn’t regularly stock the extreme stuff I liked, their manager, Marianne, was really good about finding and ordering me whatever I wanted, in a timely fashion. Some time in the early 1990s, I recorded a musique concrète piece that incorporated an old voice mail tape I had found. (Remember those?) I called the piece “Marianne From Music Land,” as hers was the first voice appearing therein, an apt recognition and appreciation of her role in assisting me in my weirdness while we wandered in the Western wilderness. Here ’tis, if interested.

Back to Napalm Death: While Scum and Enslavement didn’t particularly rock my world at the time, mine was apparently a notable minority opinion, as Napalm’s debut album now holds iconic status as a hugely influential work on the development of extreme metal, most especially the grindcore genre. Wikipedia currently defines that musical endeavor thusly: “Grindcore is characterized by a noise-filled sound that uses heavily distorted, down-tuned guitars, grinding over-driven bass, high speed tempo, blast beats, and vocals which consist of growls and high-pitched shrieks.” Yep, that’s what Scum offered. Who knew it would be so inspirational to so many other musicians? I certainly wouldn’t have placed that bet back then.

So, since the whole premise of this article is that Napalm Death were my favorite band for several years, does this mean that I went back and re-evaluated my feelings about the album that many would consider the group’s best and most important? Nope, no it doesn’t. I still think Scum is pretty okay bordering on over-rated, and I don’t often listen to anything from it. From Enslavement to Obliteration is actually more interesting and appealing to me these days, though mainly as an entry pipeline for the works of Cathedral (which featured Enslavement singer Lee Dorrian) and Carcass (Enslavement guitarist Bill Steer’s long-running later band). But at bottom line, none of the line-ups documented in those early Napalm Death albums and related singles/EPs would likely ever have moved the group into the burning forefront of my attention, critical heresy though I know that to be.

The Napalm Death who ultimately made me rave with enthusiasm didn’t show up until 1992’s Utopia Banished album, by which time everybody who had appeared on the group’s earliest records was gone, except for Enslavement bassist Shane Embury. The rest of the new line-up was rounded out by singer Mark “Barney” Greenway, guitarists Jesse Pintado and Mitch Harris (who, confusingly, overlapped briefly with early drummer and final original hold-out Mick Harris), and drummer Danny Herrera. Embury and Greenway were from England’s Midlands (where the group originated), Harris was a native New Yorker then living in Nevada, and Pintado and Herrera were both born in Mexico before emigrating with their families to California. A truly international ensemble, that! Pintado died in 2006, with the remaining quartet carrying the Napalm Death banner forward to this day, though Harris has been on a family-related sabbatical for some time, replaced for live gigs by guitarist John Cooke.

I didn’t grab Utopia Banished at the time. Nor for a long time afterwards. Nor did I score the many Napalm Death records that followed it until around 2007, by which time we’d long left Idaho behind for Upstate New York. Two factors contributed directly to my subsequent rediscovery and deepest embrace of Napalm Death: the demise of brick and mortar record stores, and my personal fitness regimen of the time.

In the latter case, we had joined a gym in our neighborhood, and I had returned to my early love of boxing by anchoring my fitness regimen around beating the shit out of the heavy bag that they had hanging in a studio there. Extreme metal worked really, really well for such activities, so I was always looking for good new stuff on that front to help me move my feet and fists with frenzied ferocity. Then with regard to the death of brick and mortar record stores: as Amazon, eBay, mp3 players, Napster and suchlike killed off that retail sector, one of the nation’s then-largest players in the field, Trans World Entertainment, happened to be based in Albany, near where we lived. At some point as their stores were shutting down throughout the region, they set up a consolidated “everything must go” outlet in a dying mall, filled with boxes and boxes of leftover CDs, at deepest discount rates.

Needless to say, I went there often as TWE desperately tried to clear out their remaining physical inventory. Most of what was there was crap, the stuff which nobody had wanted when it was being offered in the proper mainline retail outlets. But one day I found a pile of Napalm Death CD’s, including Fear, Emptiness, Despair (1994, and the second record by the Utopia Banished line-up), Diatribes (1996), Inside the Torn Apart (1997), and Words From the Exit Wound (1998). By this time, I was obviously aware of the acclaim that Scum had come to accrue over the years, so it seemed like it would be worth the five bucks or so that I paid for those four CDs to see what they had been up to in the ensuing years.

And boy howdy am I glad I did. I loved those records, both at the gym and at home. (Though Napalm Death have always been a headphones and/or by-myself-in-my-office indulgence around the house, since neither Marcia nor Katelin care for their extreme fare, though Marcia was a trooper and went to see them live with me once. Kisses!) The music was strong and brilliant, and I very much appreciated (and still appreciate) the ways in which they expressed their social and political interests, on disc and in interviews. Unlike a lot of their monochrome fellows hoeing the metal field, Napalm Death have always been great at mixing up their sonic palette, and some of their finest moments eschew any high-speed thrash and whang for a more sludgy, Swans-y approach, often accented with nearly monastic chanting, or unexpected instrumental elements. Tremendous stuff. Very powerful.

In my prior article about The Fall‘s run as my Favorite Band, I noted how an enjoyable retrospective dig into parts of their catalog that I had missed in real time was reinforced by their then-current release (2004’s The Real New Fall LP) turning out to be one of their greatest records, the combination of those factors pushing them to the top of my personal pile. This was also exactly the case for Napalm Death, whose titanic Time Waits For No Slave, which hit the shelves in January 2009, built spectacularly on my unexpected love for those four cheapo cut-out discs, at which point the Favorite Band mantle shifted forward with a new focus. Brutal!

I obviously back-filled my Napalm Death collection fairly quickly after that, and loved doing so. But even better, Napalm Death themselves proceeded to have what I consider to be the finest phase of their career, with Time Waits followed by the stellar Utilitarian (2012) and Apex Predator — Easy Meat (2015), along with a variety of singles, splits 7″ discs, and an outstanding late-career odds and sods compilation, Coded Smears and More Uncommon Slurs (2018). To my ears, they’ve just gotten better and better as the years go by.

As noted above, Mitch Harris has been on a sabbatical, though the group steadfastly say that he is still a member. While their frenetic touring schedule continued unabated until COVID quashed everything (I was holding tickets to see them in March, alas), Harris’ absence seems to have slowed the studio process, as Apex Predator‘s  touted successor disc has been steadily pushed outward over the past few years. That said, they have finally announced a title (Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism), released a great long-lead single (“Logic Ravaged By Brute Force“), and seem to be holding to a late 2020 release schedule. Fingers crossed! I’m ready!

Before posting my Top Ten Napalm Death tracks, I do want to acknowledge that there’s a bit of a “one of these things is not like the other” factor in today’s selection, with these tracks clearly standing as an outlier on the series playlist as easily the most extreme fare to be found. Some may choose to pass on these recommendations accordingly, which is, of course, perfectly fine. Unless as you pass, you find yourself thinking “That stuff all sounds the same to me anyway.” I have strong feelings about that sentiment. Gee, there’s a surprise, huh?

#10. “When All Is Said and Done,” from Smear Campaign (2006)

#9. “Climate Controllers,” from The Code is Red . . . Long Live the Code (2005)

#8. “De-Evolution Ad Nauseum,” from Time Wait for No Slave (2009)

#7. “Fall On Their Swords,” from Utilitarian (2012)

#6. “Incendiary Incoming,” from Words from the Exit Wound (1998)

#5. “The Code is Red . . . Long Live the Code,” from The Code is Red . . . Long Live the Code (2005)

#4. “The Wolf I Feed,” from Utilitarian (2012)

#3. “Life and Limb,” from Time Wait for No Slave (2009)

#2. “Cursed to Crawl,” from Diatribes (1996)

#1. “Apex Predator — Easy Meat,” from Apex Predator — Easy Meat (2015)

Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.

Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #11: The Fall

Readers of a certain age will no doubt recall the once-ubiquitous series of Paul Masson Wine television commercials starring an inebriated Orson Welles intoning: “We will sell no wine . . . before its time.” (Need a refresher peek? Here). I’m reminded of that cultural touch point as I consider today’s installment of Favorite Songs by Favorite Bands. So before we get started today, let’s set a stage: Imagine me sitting here at my computer desk this morning, swirling my cup of coffee grandiosely in your direction, staring deeply into your eyes, and declaiming with uncomfortable sincerity: “I will favorite no band . . . before its time.” Aaaaaaand . . . scene!!

Of the dozen bands covered in this series, Butthole Surfers were the only one that I would have declared as my favorite relatively soon after their inception, their recorded debut, and my first exposure to them. That said, all of the first seven bands I cited in this series were within their first decade of operations at the time that they rose to the top of my personal musical pile, though the record industry’s high-speed assembly line approach to album releases in the ’60s and ’70s meant that some still had sizable catalogs by the times I most adored each of them. That changed when it came to my relationship with Hawkwind, who were nearly a quarter-century old when I judged them to be my favorite, some 17 years after I first heard their music. Ditto with The Residents: they took my personal title ~30 years after their inception, and ~15 years after I acquired my first Residential album.  Having made this shift in approach (which must clearly be indicative of my deepening wisdom, patience and discernment)(no?), it seems we shan’t be going back, as that “let it mature” approach is certainly in full effect when I consider the arc of my fandom for The Fall.

As was the case with Butthole Surfers and The Residents, I acquired my first Fall record soon after the musical annus horribilis of my Plebe Year at the Naval Academy, when I was forbidden from openly owning and operating music reproduction devices. (Though, as discussed in the XTC article, I did cheat on the listening front with a small collection of then-favorites, even as my new acquisitions dwindled into nothingness). The Fall had formed in 1976 in England’s Greater Manchester, after founder and guiding light Mark E. Smith was among an audience of about 40 people at the Sex Pistols’ legendary June 4th show at Lesser Free Trade Hall. A statistically improbable number of Smith’s fellow attendees also went on to secure legendary status with such acts as Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths, Simply Red, and The Buzzcocks (who had organized the event), often aided and abetted by Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson, producer Martin Hannett and journalist Paul Morley, all of whom were also at that transformative gig.

By time I purchased my first Fall record, the group had replaced all of its original members except for Smith (in some cases, more than once already), and had five full length studio albums, three live albums, one compilation album, nine singles and two EPs to their name, plus Slates (1981). I cite that final item in a “cheese stands alone” fashion, because if you ever want to start a never-ending argument with a serious Fall fan, just express a strongly-held opinion as to whether it is an album, an LP, a mini-album, an EP, or something sui generis, its own unique category, Slates is Slates. (I’ll tell you where you can best engage in that argument a little later in this article). Those early trends of high personnel turnover and high productivity despite it were to continue throughout the Fall’s long and vibrant career.

Whatever you may choose to call it (for the record, I go with “EP”), an import copy of Slates was my first Fall acquisition, having caught my eye in the bins at Annapolis’ Oceans II Records, where it stood out by being a 10″ record (the rarest of pressing sizes at the time) with a dramatic cover image, and interesting song titles and graphics. I don’t recall having read much, if anything, about the group before then, though I suppose I might have, since they were already seen as being important figures of the emergent post-punk milieu in the U.K. But it was ultimately the interesting visual weirdness of the record that grabbed me, not any overt critical prompting. Well, that and the fact that it seemed like Oceans II might have over-estimated demand for the disc, as they had multiple copies of it, modestly priced for an import. Sold!

Slates was (and remains) wonderful, and from there I moved on to purchase the record considered by many to be their finest, Hex Enduction Hour (1982), which is indeed a stone-cold masterpiece. I picked up a few more of their earlier records, though not a complete collection, liking some a lot (e.g. Grotesque (After the Gramme) from 1980), and some not so much (Dragnet, from 1979). I also wasn’t at all wild about Hex‘s follow-on album, 1982’s Room to Live, which felt to me at the time like a grievous step in a wrong direction, and seemed even more so when I later learned that guitarist-bassist-keyboardist Marc Riley had been pushed out of the band after its creation. I attributed a lot of the sounds I liked in the Fall’s mix to Riley at that point, perhaps correctly, perhaps not. He also featured strongly in the songwriting credits on many of my favorite Fall songs, so my sense of the situation was that the group had lost a very important member, and was likely to be less interesting going forward as a result. I stopped buying Fall albums for a long time after that, but I did always pick up the various records released by Riley and his subsequent group, The Creepers, which were pretty okay, I guess, but not much more. (If Marc Riley’s name rings bells for you, he later went on to be a popular and influential radio figure in the U.K., a status he actively holds to this day).

As things played out, mostly unbeknownst to me at the time, Mark E. Smith replaced Riley with his new American wife, Brix, and together they spent the remainder of the 1980s producing the most popular and, for some, the most successful work of the group’s long career, before Brix and Mark divorced in 1989. She later returned for a pair of albums in the mid-’90s, and is also something of popular media figure in England to this day, currently playing in a group called The Extricated with several other key former Fall stalwarts, including the Hanley Brothers, who recently inspired this supplemental music nerd adventure.

Some time after Brix’s first departure and the demise of Riley’s Creepers, I acquired a pair of Fall compilation albums during my great “Sell All The Records (All Of Them!) To Buy The CDs” era: 458489 A-Sides and 458489 B-Sides. Those discs provided excellent synopses of the Brix era, which sounded pretty darn good to me, and made it clear that I’d bet on the wrong horse, post-Hex. Those compilations led me to more deeply re-investigate that era with fresh ears and eyes, and I enjoyed the experience, most especially The Wonderful and Frightening World Of The Fall album from 1984. (Ironically, I guess, these days I’m back where I was before those 458489 discs in terms of my Fall listening, and I rarely spin anything from the Brix era of the group).

I occasionally checked in with The Fall through the 1990s and early 2000s (a mixed bag era, for sure), though they were largely a side concern for me to be read about in the music press, of intellectual news interest as much as being an act that actually moved me musically in real time. But then another compilation album served as a catalyst for refueling my passion for their catalog, and my need to fill the gaps in my knowledge and experience of same. This one was called 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats (2004), and it first caught my attention primarily for its clever and self-effacing appropriation of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, the King’s 1959 greatest hits collection. This compilation made the ’90s era seem much more interesting to me than it had in real time, but more importantly, it also made me go grab the group’s latest studio record, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click) (2003 U.K. release, 2004 in the U.S.) and it was utterly brilliant, their best album since Hex Enduction Hour to my ears, and still one of my very favorite records by the group, or by anybody else.

So I was suddenly afire for the Fall again, at which point another key facet of my relationship with the group emerged after I was searching for some band information and stumbled upon what was known in 2004 as the Official Fall Website, before Mark E. Smith insisted in some fit of pique that the site be removed completely from the web. At that point, the site became known as The Unofficial Fall Website (2006-2007), and then settled upon a more value-neutral The Fall Online (2007-present). A key component of that website, then and now, was its community message board: The Fall Online Forum, or FOF to its friends. The granular and macro levels of passion, knowledge, and opinion, and the volumes of academic-quality research, interpretation, writing and data there were (and mostly remain) at levels very rarely seen among the fandom of any other nominally rock-based bands of my acquaintance, with the possible exception of the Grateful Dead. It was smart, thorough bordering on the obsessive, and often a very funny read at its best, and it directly contributed to my emergent Fall fixations, not to mention the establishment of some excellent friendships.

I just lurked about and read the FOF from 2004 to 2007, but didn’t actually engage there, because I’d learned from experience already the value of what I call “Serial Monogam-E.” Meaning: I understood how much of a time and energy suck being part of a busy online community can be, so I generally choose to be active in one and only one such community at any given time. My primary interactive attentions through the early 2000s were housed and directed at the priceless and peerless Upstate Wasted (which later became Upstate Ether) website, discussed in more length here. But by 2007, that Albany-based community was winding down and I needed to find a new online home, just as the FOF was conducting one of its occasional cup competitions, in this case to determine by group acclamation over a long elimination bracket process, which was the very greatest of all Fall songs at the time. (For the record, “Leave The Capitol” won; you can hear it in my own Top Ten list below).

In order to vote in that Fall Cup, I had to formally join the Forum, which I did on June 21, 2007. Some 10,000ish personal posts later, I’m still a member there, though I tend to take long breaks from it these days, including being on such a sabbatical right now. As with most lightly- or non-moderated public forums, the FOF often descends into discourse and discussion that I find distasteful, typically driven by the most relentlessly prolific community political trolls and/or by the “must respond to every post” practitioners, typing lots, while saying little. (To be fair, I’m sure there are people at the FOF who feel that way about me when I am most active there). When the Fall were a going concern, the yucko stuff tended to be a readily ignored side track, a minority portion of the much greater whole. But in the absence of any meaningful current Fall talk (the group are no more, alas), the FOF is often now filled beyond tolerable capacity with self-indulgent, shit-stirring streams of sigh-inducing spew. As with my Serial Monogam-E premise, I also believe that when something voluntary that is supposed to be fun stops being so, one must also just stop doing it. I miss some of my friends there, but life’s too short, etc.

I do (and will) make a point of returning to the FOF more actively for an occasional game hosted there called MIU (“Mix It Up”), now just past its 31st installment. It is built on a premise of players providing each other with mix CDs where all identifying information about the songs thereon is removed, and mix assignments are made by a volunteer coordinator, so that nobody knows who created the discs they receive. This approach forces the recipient to write a public review on the FOF without a bunch of preconceived notions about the artists or genres featured. After the review, the mix creators identify themselves, and provide explanatory reveals of their discs, and it’s a very fun way to approach new music. I’ve been gifted songs I love from bands I thought I hated, discovered all sorts of interesting obscurities from bands known and not, shared some of my own off-the-wall favorites, and been pleased when they resonated with others. So while I’m currently in “off” mode with the FOF, I have let friends there know to alert me when the next MIU gets underway, as I will head back for it.

While my personal designee for Favorite Band moved on in other directions a few years after The Fall finally reached “its time” for me (to return to dear dead Orson’s tagline from our introduction today), I never again set the group aside, but instead purchased every subsequent studio album upon its release. I became deeply fond of what ended up being the final incarnation of the Fall, beginning with 2008’s Imperial Wax Solvent: Mark E. Smith (of course), guitarist Pete Greenway, bassist Dave Spurr, and drummer Keiron Melling, plus keyboardist (and wife of Mark) Elena Poulou, on all but their final album, 2017’s New Facts Emerge.  That line-up stabilized a group known for its massive personnel turnover, until it was sadly ended by the untimely death of Mark E. Smith from cancer on January 24, 2018.

That day certainly came as a shock for the fandom at large, though there had been signs that all was not well for some time before Mark flew away. The group had announced a (very rare) set of American dates in the autumn of 2017 to support New Facts Emerge, and played a few English gigs after the album’s release, but cancellations (including all of the U.S. shows) were rife. Smith’s onstage appearance during his final concerts (wheelchair bound, arm in a sling, face terribly swollen) was cause for alarm for some — while others saluted the great man for honoring his commitments, doing his job, and being with the audiences who loved him, doubters be damned. I tend to side with the latter camp.

I have long considered Mark E. Smith to be the same sort of musical genius as George Clinton, or Captain Beefheart, or Brian Eno, or David Thomas. They are all organizers and shepherds with very clear visions of what they want from their songs, along with the persuasive skills to extract stellar performances from musicians who might never before nor ever after ascend to such heights. None of those aforementioned visionaries are ace guitarists, or skilled keyboardists, or deeply technical arrangers, or even particularly good singers, but the players they surround themselves with — their teams — are managed in such deft ways as to spark and deliver brilliance, time and time again, in original and often highly unusual styles.

Mark E. Smith was also that greatest of literary devices: a character. Quotable, irascible, intelligent, badly behaved except when he wasn’t, wearing his opinions on his sleeve, sharing his tastes with anyone who’d talk to him, largely unfiltered, mostly impolitic, deeply irreverent, consistently cantankerous, and entertaining to the Nth degree, always. I just liked watching and listening to him talk, even if I couldn’t understand what was coming out of his mouth much of the time. There’s none like him that I know, and none likely to ever fill such a unique creative niche, for so long, so well, again. Simply brilliant. Deeply missed.

There are about 520 songs which were recorded or played live by The Fall over their long and prolific run. Soon after Mark E. Smith’s death, I posted a couple of articles of appreciation about him and The Fall, and for one of them, I trawled through that catalog and posted a list of my Top Ten Fall Songs. I revisited that list today to see if it still held water for me, and it most definitely does, so the roster of songs below is the same now as it was then. Which makes sense, I suppose, since the group is defunct, and I’m not at all interested in any vault trawling for half-baked posthumous releases. I default to studio album versions for the links embedded in my list, though many Fall Fans will often cite Peel Session or other live versions as definitive. There’s no right answer, ever, when it comes to The Fall.

One final note: I resisted the urge to change the title of this post to “Favorite Songs By Favorite Groups #11: The Fall,” because Mark E. Smith regularly insisted that The Fall were not a band, but were a group. Or a gruppe, when he was waxing Teutonic. I’m sure that distinction meant something important to him, but I can’t say precisely what that something might be. I ended up keeping the title as it is on the other posts in this series, but do consciously refer to Smith and colleagues as a group here in this post itself, as he would have wanted. Bless.

#10. “Dr Bucks’ Letter,” from The Unutterable (2000)

#9. “Mountain Energei,” from The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country On The Click) (2003)

#8. “Who Makes the Nazis?,” from Hex Enduction Hour (1982)

#7. “Weather Report 2,” from Your Future Our Clutter (2010)

#6. “Alton Towers,” from Imperial Wax Solvent (2008)

#5. “Leave The Capitol,” from Slates (1981)

#4. “Fall Sound,” from Reformation Post TLC (2007)

#3. “Fantastic Life,” from “Lie Dream of a Casino Soul” Single (1981)

#2. “Blindness,” from Fall Heads Roll (2005)

#1. “Noel’s Chemical Effluence,” from The Twenty-Seven Points (1995)

Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.

Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #10: The Residents

The Residents emerged as a performing and recording group in the late 1960s, and formally released their first record, the Santa Dog EP, in 1972. They’re originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, but their working career has long been based in the San Francisco Bay area. The Residents are still a ongoing concern, and have a new album, Metal, Meat & Bone: The Songs of Dyin’ Dog, due out imminently. Like, days from now. Its two lead singles, “Bury My Bone” and “Die! Die! Die!” are both scorchers, though you probably won’t want to click those song video links at the office or in front of the young children and sensitive adults in your life. You could click the album title one safely, though, and get your pre-order in.

According to Wikipedia, the group have issued ~190 works (live and studio albums, EPs, compilations, singles, films, videos, and multi-media projects included) between their alpha and ever-forward-moving omega poles. A little math work tells us that’s a four release per year pace for about half of a century. Impressive for sure, but probably still under-stating the actual reality of their output: if you check the collection and catalog page at the Residents’ website (which is beautiful in its own right, and well worth visiting), there are ~140 works listed there, and I can quickly spot some items in each of those sources that are not listed in the other source. So it’s probably safe to state that The Residents have pumped out at least five creative artifacts per year over their very long lifetime. Though maybe more. It’s also safe to state that every single one of them is deeply weird, and that I’m unaware of any other artists who have so relentlessly supplied the strange for so long.

In the ultimate statement of bizarre absurdity with regard to their collective creative processes, we have no sanctioned, official idea of who actually created all of that work, nor even what they looked like when they did it. For if you know nothing else about The Residents, you are probably aware that they have remained masked and anonymous throughout their entire career, with one important exception, which I’ll discuss later. (The group do credit their non-member collaborators, who have included Snakefinger, Fred Frith, Nolan Cook, Carla Fabrizio, Todd Rundgren, Laurie Amat, Black Francis, Isabelle Barbier, Chris Cutler, Don Preston, Molly Harvey, Eric Drew Feldman, and others). The group’s longest-running and most well-known disguise was the Eyeballs in Tuxedos look, which first debuted on their Eskimo album in 1979. It looked like this:

There have been a lot of other looks over the years, though. When Marcia and I last caught them live in Chicago in, they looked like this:

That show was strong and dark and strenuous and angry, even by their often extreme standards. They’ve endured some additional transformational losses since then, so it didn’t surprise me when they rolled out their latest look, which is also a bit strong and dark and strenuous and angry. Here ’tis:

I can’t wait to hear what this permutation of the group produces, especially given the strength, darkness, strenuousness and anger of its lead singles. While The Residents often exist within their own bubbles of mythology and misdirection, they are quite good at capturing the spirits of various ages, and I suspect that Metal, Meat & Bone (allegedly a modern tribute to an ancient Louisiana blues man) will be trenchant and timely accordingly.

That was certainly the case around 1998 when they displaced Hawkwind atop my Favorite Band pile. The Hawks were in one of their periodic fallow periods at the time, (not in terms of output volume, but rather in terms of material quality, alas), while The Rez had just issued one of their very finest works, Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, which was pretty much exactly what it said it was. But it also tapped into the sociopolitical absurdity and discomfort emerging from and driven by religious zealotry within the highest levels of our Federal government, fanned and flamed by ever more strident and toxic talk radio and cable news outlets. Four years later, their Demons Dance Alone (2002) album offered their incredible response to the tragedies of September 11, 2001, and their next major album project, Animal Lover (2005) was also one of their finest flowers. Of course, in between those three tent-pole releases they also put out a gazillion other items of interest, most notably the Icky Flix 30th anniversary DVD, so it was a very good time to be a Residents obsessive.

I obliquely cited Our Finest Flowers above because that was one of the discs that moved the Rez to the top of my personal pile, some six years after its release. I’d been aware of and interested in the group since around the time of Eskimo (that image and album did wonders for their public profile), and my first Residents purchase was, in fact, their first full-length LP, Meet the Residents (1974), which I acquired in 1983 during the catch-up record shopping glut that followed my year of musical denial discussed in the XTC article of this ongoing Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series. Other Residential purchases followed, and I liked whatever I acquired. Then one day in ’98, I had taken a bunch of vinyl to the epic Last Vestige Music Shop (which I’m very pleased to see is still in business) to trade in for CDs, and scored The Residents’ Our Finest Flowers and the then-newish Residue Deux (1998), and for no clearly discernible reason, those two discs just hit the right spot at the right time, scratched the right itch in the right way, and made me Rez Mad for a right long time thereafter.

It’s worth noting that those two discs were compilations and deconstructions of lost, rare, unreleased, or forgotten earlier works, because the Residents’ prolific and perverse nature means that some of their greatest work emerges from obscure corners, rather than from their main-line studio album stream. To cite another example of that paradigm, the version of the song that I’ve picked below as my personal #1 Residents track of all time was originally released in a very limited edition as a one-sided single in 1989, then appeared in a different form as part of a live multi-media show, then was not properly placed on a regularly-accessible full-length compilation album until  Daydream B-Liver in 2018. At least I think that’s the case. It’s often impossible to tell such things with absolute conviction.

And speaking of absolute conviction: The Residents’ anonymity has certainly been affirmed by the group and those associated with it with that, in bucketfuls. Their primary spokespersons over the years have been the members of their management and public relations team, The Cryptic Corporation, which was founded in 1976 by Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, John Kennedy and Jay Clem. The latter two members departed the partnership in 1982, leaving Homer and Hardy as the public faces and voices of the organization.

And speaking of voices: the Singing Resident (also known as Mr. Red Eye, Mr. Skull, and Randy Rose at different times over the years) has audibly been around since the group’s debut, and he has a truly distinctive, unique voice, his native Louisiana accent and drawl prominent, his baritone range bountiful, his declamatory force powerful. Careful observers, over time, might just have noticed that Homer Flynn’s voice is, ummm, how shall we say it . . . identical to that of the Singing Resident. Coincidence? Fluke of shared upbringing? You be the judge. (The Singing Resident’s Southern accent was a part of what made me love them, actually, with me being a native of a Southern linguistic region, and always annoyed by Northern presumptions that those of us who speak that way are ignorant, and should change or suppress our mellifluous native tongues and tones in public discourse).

Hardy Fox also spoke frequently on the group’s behalf, though with a less familiar cadence and cackle. But then his health grew frail, and in 2016, he stepped aside from his Cryptic responsibilities. Shortly before he died of brain cancer in 2018, his website biography noted: “He co-founded the much loved cult band, the Residents, where he was primary composer.” Duly noted, sir. Thank you for your long-held secrecy and superb service. I’m glad you had the chance to de-cloak, if only for a brief moment.

I have a sweet Hardy Fox story as a coda to that acknowledgement. The early days of my deepest Residents obsessions coincided with those primordial Internet days when easy, direct contact with and between the artists we admired first became possible, and common. The Rez had a decent number of songs that had been deemed family-friendly enough to be played on the common area house stereo, one of which, “Whoopy Snorp,” (you can hear it in the Top Ten list below), became one of my young daughter Katelin’s favorite songs too. (Katelin had a fantastic “Residents for President” t-shirt even, cultured and smart political girl that she was, and remains). “Whoopy Snorp” contained these lyrics, among others: “And what is truth? I say, forsooth: Why, truth is like a Baby Ruth! And what could be ever sweeter? Well, maybe to have a yellow anteater. Old Yeller ate my cat today, and whoopy snorped, and whoopy snorped away.” I don’t quite know how or why she (or we) decided to do it, but Katelin sat at my computer one day and sent an email to Hardy via the Residents’ website, telling him how much she liked that song, though she also loved her cats very much and would worry about them being eaten had she an anteater. Hardy wrote back quickly, thanking Katelin for her note, and telling her that Old Yeller was so old now that he had lost all of his teeth, and could no longer eat cats, so all was well. Perfect!

The Residents’ voluminous and confusing catalog made selecting a Top Ten list a chore, though a fun one to complete. I’ve identified the original source albums and titles of these songs, but many of them appear in many other places in many other forms, so usefulness and accuracy of these citations will vary from user to user.

#10. “You Yesyesyes,” from Fingerprince (1977)

#9. “Smack Your Lips (Clap Your Teeth),” from Tunes of Two Cities (1982)

#8. “Moisture,” from Commercial Album (1980)

#7. “Hello Skinny,” from Duck Stab EP (1978)

#6. “Ugly Beauty,” from Roosevelt 2.0 (2001)

#5. “Whoopy Snorp,” from Residue of The Residents (1984)

#4. “God’s Magic Finger,” from Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible (1998)

#3. “On the Way (To Oklahoma),” from Animal Lover (2005)

#2. “Mr. Wonderful,” from Demons Dance Alone (2002)

#1. “From The Plains to Mexico (Single Mix),” from “From The Plains to Mexico” Single (1989)

Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.

Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app. Probably not unexpectedly, one of my selected songs above (“Ugly Beauty”) is not available through that streaming service. I’ve replaced it in the playlist with my #11 cut, “I Hate Heaven,” from Wormwood.