Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands

(Note: Originally published at jericsmith.com, copyright 2004, J. Eric Smith. All rights reserved).

Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands (Part One)

It’s time now to begin the second in our series of periodic music geek essays, structured head-to-head style. (The first was the Worst Rock Band Ever survey in January). Let’s review the ground rules before we get on to the good stuff:

1. The object of this competition is to identify the greatest secret band of all time.

2. By that, we mean bands that weren’t one-record wonders (as a general rule, each band had to have produced at least five records to be a contender), but who managed to never break the Top 20 in either the album or singles charts in the United States, or who never managed to achieve gold or platinum record sales, or who never achieved the sort of cult/critic glow and respect that transcends record sales. For instance: the Ramones, the Velvet Underground, King Crimson or Sonic Youth fall into that latter category. If you know much of anything about contemporary music or have any interest in it (and if you’ve read this far, you probably do), then you know something about their contributions. Why rehash them here? We’re looking for bands that are a little bit more secret than that . . . but not so secret as to be needlessly, unfindably obscure. It’s a judgment call, sure, but odds are that you won’t have all of these bands in your record collection, but will be able to find at least some of their records if you want them, without undue hardship or financial strain.

3. Note well the clause about “in the United States.” I know that some of these bands were big in England or other places in their time, but to the average rock listener in America, they were largely invisible.

4. Note well that this is all about bands: there are no solo performers here.

5. Each band will be pitted head-to-head against another band and the more significant, greater band will move forward until we have four finalists. In early rounds, those analyses will be pretty short and sweet. The further forward we go, the deeper we’ll delve in the comparisons. The four finalists will compete in a round robin competition, each band going against each of the other final four. The band with the most points at that point will be declared Rock’s Greatest Secret Band.

6. Readers, please note well that I don’t hate you if I end up eliminating your favorite band(s), I don’t think you’re stupid if you like band(s) that get eliminated, and I’m not insulting you if you if I insult your favorite band(s). I’m insulting the band(s) themselves. There’s a difference. You are a fan. You are not the band, and not responsible for upholding their honor. (If you are, however, a member of band discussed here, please disregard this bullet . . . I am talking about you). I welcome e-mail feedback of all varieties, except this format: “Dude . . . [your favorite band(s) name here] rocks . . . and you suck!” Bottom line: if you don’t like what I’m saying, then why are you reading my blog?

7. Yes, of course this is all subjective. All music criticism is subjective. If there was an objective standard for judging music, then we wouldn’t need music critics, and we wouldn’t need record labels, and we wouldn’t need press flacks: corporations would just put out a very small number of records that met the objective standard for “good music” and everyone would buy and listen to the same small number of things. It’s subjectivity, both in terms of artists’ aspirations and talents and critical and commercial response to them, that makes music exciting. You can’t have a happy train wreck or an inspired mistake in a world ruled by objectivity.

8. Yes, of course this is just my opinion. (Well, not really, I have been getting input from readers, and have been taking their points into consideration). But, ultimately, it’s me that’s making the call. But, then, ultimately this is my blog, innit? Why would I fill my blog with somebody else’s opinion? If you want to know what Kurt Loder or Dave Marsh or Greil Marcus think about these bands, go read their blogs.

9. How were the groups selected, you ask? I came up with a seed list of contenders who met the basic criteria. I accepted suggestions and feedback from readers, knocked the whole concept around with several folks, honed the requirements, tweaked, fiddled and played around to try to get a good, representative list of bands who were influential, important, or just plain good . . . but not so much so that they had, de facto, entered into the pop music vernacular, despite selling no records. The 64 bands are grouped into to eight groups, loosely chronologically, to ensure that the final four cover a reasonably wide time continuum. There were some small tweaks made to the basic qualifying criteria (there may be a group or two here that may have squeaked one album close to the Top 20, or there may be a group or two here that only put out four albums and a single, for instance), but in general, the participants are fairly consistent with the intent of the project, if not the letter of the law.

10. And, therefore, without any further ado, we present the final competitors in their groups . . .

GROUP ONE
The Good Rats vs. Family
Magma vs. Wigwam
Flamin’ Groovies vs. Faust
Hawkwind vs. Soft Machine

GROUP TWO
Camel vs. BeBop Deluxe
Brinsley Schwarz vs. The Dictators
Can vs. Gong
The Residents vs. Chrome

GROUP THREE
The Buzzcocks vs. Wire
The Cramps vs. Televisions Personalities
Black Flag vs. The Mekons
The Fall vs. Pere Ubu

GROUP FOUR
The Birthday Party vs. DOA
Gang of Four vs. Descendents
The Fleshtones vs. The Minutemen
The dBs vs. Gun Club

GROUP FIVE
The Lyres vs. Dream Syndicate
Shriekback vs. Swans
Guadalcanal Diary vs. The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy
St. Vitus vs. Voivod

GROUP SIX
Naked Raygun vs. Die Kreuzen
Half Man Half Biscuit vs. Killdozer
Throwing Muses vs. Bongwater
Dickies vs. Camper Van Beethoven

GROUP SEVEN
Spacemen 3 vs. Tragic Mulatto
Big Black vs. Drivin’ n’ Cryin’
Guided by Voices vs. Clutch
Teenage Fanclub vs. Felt

GROUP EIGHT
16 Horsepower vs. Sweep the Leg Johnny
Luna vs. Sloan
Snog vs. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead vs. Turbonegro

And with even less ado, let’s move right on into the list, hey presto. Today I will run the first round competitions for Groups One to Four. Tomorrow I will run the first round competitions for Groups Five to Eight. After that, I’ll try to run a whole round each day, time, research and typing skills permitting.

The Good Rats vs. Family: Boy, a great pairing to start with, with a pair of blues-based bands with prog-rock tendencies, each fronted by a singer capable of sterilizing small mammals at 50 paces (Roger Chapman with Family, Peppi Marchello with the Good Rats). England’s Family is best known in America for their alumni: Ric Grech went on to Blind Faith, John Wetton to King Crimson and Asia, Jim Cregan to Rod Stewart’s band, etc. The Good Rats are best known in America if you live on Long Island, where they are (and have been for 30 odd years) legendary; the current incarnation of the band finds Peppi playing with his sons. If you like one of these bands, odds are you’d like the other. For purposes of this competition, we pick the band that had more impact on a larger island, declaring . . . The greater band: Family.

Magma vs. Wigwam: Weird rockin’ prog from Europe’s heartland vs. weird rockin’ prog from Finland, both anchored by superb, under-appreciated bass players (Pekka Pohjola for Wigwam, Jannick Top for Magma). While we probably should dock Magma points for creating their own sci-fi language and wrapping it around a pretty cheesy ’70s space rock construct, we also to reward them for being capable of pulverizing any number of metal bands when it comes down to sheer rock punch and power: their Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh is one of the most savage blends of Wagneresque opera, Coltrane flavored jazz and roaring rock intensity ever recorded, even if it is sung in Kobaian. The greater band: Magma.

Flamin’ Groovies vs. Faust: The Flamin’ Groovies put the garage in the garage rock. Faust put the art in the art rock. Would you rather rock in a garage or a museum? Me too. The greater band: Flamin’ Groovies.

Hawkwind vs. Soft Machine: Soft Machine was formidable, adventurous and influential in their early days, with Daevid Allen, Hugh Hopper, Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt passing through their ranks. By their fifth album, though, they’d pretty well devolved into a pretty unexceptional fusionoid jazzbo combo, with bunches of other Canterbury-type folks passing through their ranks. Hawkwind, too, was all about devolving, since I’d wager that close to 100 people have played onstage with them over the years in various morphing and ad hoc permutations. But where Soft Machine got more complex and cerebral, Hawkwind have persevered by keeping pretty much true to the slam-bam blanga that they pioneered, playing to the gut and hips more than to the head (since the head needed to be free to explore the cosmos under the influence of whatever that guy behind the portable loo sold you at the festival at Stonehenge after a three day rain while you danced naked with your cousin’s wife). In short: blanga eats jazz. (And, yes, I am the guy who wrote the Hawkwind Blanga Guide, I must note in the spirit of full disclosure). The greater band: Hawkwind.

Camel vs. BeBop Deluxe: Two ’70s prog bands that tended to be a bit on the precious side, while also being blessed with formidable pop skills and technical chops. We give the edge to BBD for launching Bill Nelson’s career . . . if we were picking “Beneath the Radar” solo artists, he’d be high on the list, and his band at its best (see Sunburst Finish), merged guitar hero licks, pop songs and prog better than many have done before or since. Neither Camel, not their guiding light, Andrew Latimer, ever managed that feat quite as well, although they got admirably close on occasion. The greater band: BeBop Deluxe.

Brinsley Schwarz vs. The Dictators: Pioneering UK pub rockers with great, smart songwriting by bassist Nick Lowe vs. pioneering NYC proto-punks with great, stoopid songwriting by bassist Adny Shernoff. High grade crude, in both cases, but we give the nod to the Dictators here for standing as the truest bridge between MC5/Stooges rawk and the Ramones-inspired punk onslaught that followed them, and for not issuing a twee CSN-flavored debut disc the way that Brinsley Schwarz did. The greater band: The Dictators.

Can vs. Gong: I say “Can,” you think “Krautrock.” I say “Gong,” you think “Huh?” Formed by Soft Machine refugee Daevid Allen, Gong evolved in all sorts of complex and fusion-flavored ways over the years, sometimes swimming in the Canterbury pool, sometimes not. It’s difficult, on some plane, to assess them as a single entity: are we talking Gong? Pierre Moerlen’s Gong? Mothergong? Gong Maison? New York Gong? Gongzilla? By functioning as a long-standing, free-wheeling collective of artists, Gong almost eliminates itself from consideration as a band. Almost. Can, on the other hand, were a band: Irmin Schmidt, Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli, Jaki Leibezeit . . . with a pair of singers (Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki) following each other through the early stages of their life cycle. The Mooney and Suzuki albums (ever wonder where the Mooney Suzuki got their name from, kiddies?) are by far and away the best ones Can issued, as their later discs got a bit drifty around the edges, but, still, they were a band, and that counts for something. The greater band: Can.

The Residents vs. Chrome: Two bands of San Francisco weirdoes making all sorts of amazing and terrible sounds, for fun and profit. Chrome’s second and third records, Alien Soundtracks and Half Machine Lip Moves, are essential, as the partnership between Damon Edge and Helios Creed reached its pinnacle, wrapped in a swirl of screaming guitars, tinny percussion, weird samples, future shock and paranoia. Problem was, afterwards came a period where Chrome was Edge without Creed, but then Edge died, so Chrome became Creed without Edge, and none of it was anywhere near as good as those earlier slices. The Residents, for their part, also excel in creating things involving screaming guitars (or people), tinny percussion, weird samples, future shock and paranoia, and they’ve managed to do it for over 30 years without anybody knowing who they are. How beneath the radar can you get? As deep into their career as they (whoever they are) are, The Residents most recent studio albums have been among their best. It’s pretty clear that they are . . . The Greater Band: The Residents.

The Buzzcocks vs. Wire: Both English bands emerged in the rush of “We can do that” enthusiasm inspired by the Sex Pistols’ (and other, lesser punks) assaults on musical sensibilities in the UK, circa 1976-77. Both of their debut albums (Wire’s Pink Flag and The Buzzcocks’ Another Music in a Different Kitchen) took the basic idiot punk idiom and carried it into far more thoughtful places. But over the years, the Buzzcocks never strayed too terribly far from the snappy verse/chorus/energy of punk, while Wire left that behind in pursuit of some of the most challenging music ever to be issued under the name of “rock.” Discounting the one album issued under the name “Wir,” Wire have also managed to keep their basic line-up intact for nearly 30 years, while the Buzzcocks have formed, broken up, reformed in a variety of permutations over the years. That consistency and continuity (even when they don’t play together for years at a time) is part of what makes Wire so exceptional and extraordinary: these guys know how to play with each other, and the noises they make together are truly greater than the sum of their respective parts. The greater band: Wire.

The Cramps vs. Television Personalities: Ooky spooky American roots rock vs. veddy veddy polite and tidy English pop rock of the post-Syd Barrett persuasion. TVP’s Dan Treacy (is he still missing? does anybody know? last I’d heard, he’d vanished without a trace some years ago?) wrote sweet, sad, heartbreaking songs, and the album Closer to God is one of the most wrenching pop-styled records you’ll ever hear. The Cramps, on the other hand, are all about wrenching horror from the rock idiom, and when they’re on, they raise two chords and a howl to as fine an art form as it can possibly be. Bonus points to them for having Alex Chilton, another classic below-the-radar solo guy, produce their first disc. And for Bad Music for Bad People, which may well stand as the greatest “Greatest Hits” record ever issued. You may not have heard it, but you’ll recognize its cover, and you’ll want to buy it, although you won’t know why. The greater band: The Cramps.

Black Flag vs. The Mekons: Another USA vs. the UK contest. The Mekons, still going strong after their birth in Iron Hen-era Britain, are hard to pigeonhole: they’ve done just about everything from Gang of Four-flavored agitpunk to cryin’ in your beer modern cowboy songs, and do (almost) all of it very well. Black Flag began as a straight-up hardcore band fronted by Keith Morris, and ended as a straight up hardcore band fronted by Henry Rollins. In between, several other singers, bassists and drummers whirled around band leader Greg Ginn’s bizarre take on punk rock, filled with weird freeform guitar skronk and sarcastic views of the human experience, such as it is. Unlike 99% of their peers, though, Black Flag stretched well beyond the harder-faster rules of the day: an all instrumental album? spoken word? jazz? That was mind-blowing stuff in its day, totally out of keeping with the dogma and rules that punk and its spawn had laid on the land in the ’80s, and the exceptional Rollins-Ginn-Kira Roessler-Bill Stevenson Black Flag line-up was the only one of their permutations really capable of pulling it off. But while they were doing it, man, they made it cool for punks to be smart, which seems like an obvious thing to say now, but wasn’t in 1985. Black Flag were hugely influential, doing more than any other band to carry the energy and message (whatever it was) of SoCal hardcore and post-punk coast to coast; if you’ve been to a hardcore show recently, and know how it felt and looked and smelled, then you have experienced Black Flag’s legacy. That wouldn’t exist without them. The Mekons, for all their stylistic dabbling, have never been quite as influential in any way, making great music for themselves and their audiences without many other folks wanting to do it their way. While Black Flag operated largely under the radar, their legacy leads us to choose . . . The Greater Band: Black Flag.

The Fall vs. Pere Ubu: Yet another contest that stretches its arms across the pond (although Ubu mainstay David Thomas has made his home in England for some time now). Both bands have been around since the ’70s, both are ongoing concerns, and both are fronted by singers who are generally viewed to be quite the acquired tastes: The Fall’s Mark E. Smith is a snarler and Ubu’s Thomas is a warbler, and neither of them sounds like anybody else you’ve heard before. This is a good thing, mind you. Both bands have had long-term personnel flux, with key members coming and going, and different albums from different eras in their history sounding quite different accordingly, although the presence of Smith and Thomas make it unmistakable as to who you’re hearing in each band’s case. Their best records are truly exceptional, and the worst records are still better than most other people’s best. But . . . the Fall tend to fall prey to what I will call the Ani DiFranco Syndrome, where it seems they believe that just about everything they record merits release, and they record an awful lot of stuff. Overall, Ubu’s average quality is higher, because they seem to be more judicious about how often they get together to make records, and what they release when they do. The Fall could use a little bit of self-editing in that regard. (As could Ani DiFranco). For that one small difference, we declare . . . The Greater Band: Pere Ubu.

The Birthday Party vs. DOA: In which we visit two of the Commonwealth’s larger lands, pitting Australia’s The Birthday Party against Canada’s DOA. The Birthday Party are best known these days for being Nick Cave’s pre-Bad Seeds band, which they were, of course, chronologically, although they were so much more than that musically: their recorded output may well be some of the most disturbing music ever recorded, lyrically, musically and conceptually, and the dark horrific power of their material makes most Goth-flavored outfits sound like the Trapp Family Singers in comparison. DOA were a bit more straightforward, for the most part: an early West Coast punk band that continues to chug along smartly, putting out and playing a rich and rewarding collection of metalloid music with pointed political lyrics: Joey “Shithead” Keithley packs more social conscience into half a verse than the Birthday Party managed in their entire career. Which is admirable, but far less memorable than The Birthday Party’s short and savage run as the World’s Most Horrible (in the good sense of that word) Band. Gotta go with excess in this case. The Greater Band: The Birthday Party.

Gang of Four vs. The Descendents: Smart Brits who played smart music with smart lyrics, vs. smart Californians who played dumb music with dumb lyrics. Gang of Four began to fall apart pretty quickly, and by the time of their fourth record, Hard, they were little more than a clever dance band. The Descendents followed a similar course after front man Milo Auckerman left, turning into All, a sort of Descendents Lite option to the father band, playing pretty stock skatercore for a decade or so before reforming to do pretty much what they’d done before. Gang of Four’s kingpins (Andy Gill and Jon King) resuscitated the franchise name in the ’90s, too, with wan results. As I type, this particular contest is striking me as the weakest of the first round so far, with some other worthier bands having been given the heave-ho while one of these bands will advance. But . . . since a decision is going to have to be made, I’m going to go with Gang of Four, because their best material is head and shoulders above the Descendents best material, because Andy Gill is one of the more impressive guitarists of the post-punk era, and because the Descendents’ hard-working Bill Stevenson has already advanced to the second round with Black Flag, so I don’t feel bad about leaving him in the foyer in this contest, worthy drummer, songwriter and coffee fiend that he is. But this is a wan endorsement for Gang of Four . . . even though the decision rests. The Greater Band: Gang of Four.

The Fleshtones vs. The Minutemen: East Coast vs. West Coast, with the roots-fortified hard rockin’ New Yorkers of the Fleshtones taking on San Pedro’s most beloved trio. While I’ve seen the Fleshtones deliver some amazing concerts (and by amazing, I mean amazing: these guys are the bee’s knees when it comes to kicking your ass in the concert hall), I don’t ever really find myself wanting to listen to their records. The Minutemen, on the other hand, never issued a bad or boring disc, and they remain as challenging, thought-provoking and technically astonishing today as they did when they first blew my mind in the ’80s. D. Boon’s tragic death cut short the life of one of the most incredibly talented bands to ever take guitar in hand; if you ever need to get a sense of what a titanic talent he was, compare the Minutemen to firehose, the follow-on trio formed by Mike Watt and George Hurley with Ed Crawford filling in for Boon. Crawford was a capable player and singer, but the magic was gone, even though those amazing, incredible Minutemen records live on. Really, there’s not much contest here, much as I like the Fleshtones. The Greater Band: The Minutemen.

The dBs vs. Gun Club: An interesting one, as both of these bands have rabid, rabid fans . . . and I, personally, never really fully bought into the fuss. The dBs made quirky, jangly pop rock (I hate both the words “quirky” and “jangly” in music criticism, but I use them here, because that’s what we said about the dBs back then before those words became way over-used with the rise and triumph of REM) of the Carolina-to-Athens Axis variety, while the Gun Club merged sick blues with punk into a stew of psychobilly madness. Both bands went through significant personnel changes early on, leaving the dBs (primarily) in Chris Holsapple’s hands and the Gun Club (primarily) in Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s hands. Pierce died in ’97, so his legend has grown, as do the legends of all rockers who die young. To the best of my knowledge, all of the dBs are still with us. I tend to think that what the dBs did, REM, Let’s Active, Pylon and other Southern jangly (cringe) rock bands did as well, or better. I tend to think that what the Gun Club did, the Cramps did as well, or better. I guess I have to give the nod to the dBs because they did their thing before those other Southern groups did, while Gun Club followed (although, to their credit, may not have been inspired by) the Cramps. But I think this is another weaker competition than some of the others in this round . . . I own several records by both of these bands sitting in boxes somewhere, I played them when I got them, and haven’t really had much desire to do so again since then. I never Gun Club live, but I did see the dBs live and . . . nice enough, but nothing special. Neither of these groups has lasted with me, while so many of the others here have. But, as noted, we gotta nod our head in one direction, so we will nod this way . . . The Greater Band: The dBs.

And, hey nonny, that ends Day One, so let’s take a peak at the next round’s contests for Groups One to Four:

GROUP ONE
Family vs. Magma
Flamin’ Groovies vs. Hawkwind

GROUP TWO
BeBop Deluxe vs. The Dictators
Can vs. The Residents

GROUP THREE
Wire vs. The Cramps
Black Flag vs. Pere Ubu

GROUP FOUR
The Birthday Party vs. Gang of Four
The Minutemen vs. The dBs

Tomorrow we’ll tackle the first round for Groups Five through Eight (see above), then Wednesday, we’ll try to boil the thing down to the final 16 bands. Who will fly highest under the radar? Stay tuned!

Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands (Part Two)

Today we finish the first round competitions for Groups Five through Eight. Here are today’s contenders:

GROUP FIVE
The Lyres vs. Dream Syndicate
Shriekback vs. Swans
Guadalcanal Diary vs. The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy
Saint Vitus vs. Voivod

GROUP SIX
Naked Raygun vs. Die Kreuzen
Half Man Half Biscuit vs. Killdozer
Throwing Muses vs. Bongwater
Dickies vs. Camper Van Beethoven

GROUP SEVEN
Spacemen 3 vs. Tragic Mulatto
Big Black vs. Drivin’ n’ Cryin’
Guided by Voices vs. Clutch
Teenage Fanclub vs. Felt

GROUP EIGHT
16 Horsepower vs. Sweep the Leg Johnny
Luna vs. Sloan
Snog vs. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead vs. Turbonegro

No ado at all required before we hop right to it, so . . . let’s hop!

The Lyres vs. Dream Syndicate: The Lyres are an amazing Boston-bred garage band fronted by singing organist Jeff “Monoman” Connolly; their 1984 album On Fyre stands tall as a real kick in the teeth in its age, as it was one of the most stripped down, powerful and visceral rock records to hit the bins during a stretch when most of the competition was pretty dismal. In short, the Lyres reinvented classic rock for a post-punk age. Part of what made rock music so dire at that point was the rise of the Paisley Underground scene, where folks were looking backwards instead of forwards, not so much reinventing as rehashing the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s, caught up in a wave of boomer nostalgia. Dream Syndicate, while better than most of their peers, stood square at the starting blocks of the whole Paisley Underground movement, which was, blessedly, short-lived, with most of the key members of Dream Syndicate moving on to play key roles in a variety of post-college rock and/or Americana outfits. Nice enough, but . . . The Greater Band: The Lyres.

Shriekback vs. Swans: Boy, this is a tough one for me personally. Shriekback is the quintessential sound of dancing in the mid-’80s for me, the coolest music played in the coolest clubs of the era. Their early material stands up amazingly well to this day, with Gang of Four-expat David Allen’s extraordinary bass and XTC/League of Gentlemen alumnus Barry Andrews’ weird synths still sounding as fresh, distinctive and unique as they did the first time I heard them. Swans, on the other hand, provided the perfect soundtrack for a darker period of my life: when you hit rock bottom, there’s no better music to have on the discman than the trilogy of Greed, Holy Money and Children of God, plus related period singles. Swans blossomed over the years after that, becoming rich, deep and orchestral in intention and sound, while Shriekback’s life cycle saw them moving in the opposite direction, with the last gasp of their first incarnation, Go Bang, standing as a truly embarrassing record. Of course, Swans mis-stepped badly once, too, with the Bill Laswell-produced The Burning World, although they recovered from that to produce some of their greatest records in the early ’90s. I started this paragraph thinking I was gonna pick Shriekback, and it’s hard to not let them move forward just on the strength of the incredible and timeless “Lined Up” and “My Spine is the Bassline” and “Sexthinkone” and “Mothloop” . . . but, for sheer musical focus and audacity and vision and tenure and impact, I now find that I really can’t avoid declaring . . . The Greater Band: Swans.

Guadalcanal Diary vs. The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy: Guadalcanal Diary got lost, to some extent, in REM’s ascendancy to the top of the college rock world; they were always viewed as the second best guitar-based rock band from the Athens area, somehow. But in their day, they were probably my favorite live band of all, bar none, and their records are still punchy and enjoyable in ways that REM’s earliest discs aren’t to me anymore. The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, as a band, reached its pinnacle with the Pat Fish-Max Eider-Owen Jones line-up, with either David J or Felix Ray on bass. That was an amazing live and studio outfit, but after Fish sacked the lot of them for a new Conspiracy, things got a little wan. That core trio reunited a coupla years back, and as delightful as it was to hear Eider’s spectacular cocktail guitar in the mix again, I think the verdict on this one is pretty clear in the biggest picture. The Greater Band: Guadalcanal Diary.

Saint Vitus vs. Voivod: Hard as it is to imagine it today, there was a time when the worst thing a punk/hardcore band could do was to pull a metal move: metal was not cool in the early ’80s, and people would get viscerally upset when leading American hardcore bands like, say, Husker Du, put straight-up metal songs like “Turn On the News” on their records. St. Vitus played a key role in helping metal ooze back into synch with hardcore, its bastard red-headed stepchild: for no other reason than because their self-named first record was issued in 1984 on SST Records, bastion of all things cool and hardcore and Black Flag-related. If you, like me, were in the mode of buying everything that came out on your favorite record in those days, you were likely jolted to hear long-haired dudes playing the types of dirty biker music that you thought punk was supposed to have done away with. Then . . . you realized how much you liked it. Canada’s Voivod emerged around the same time with a more technically proficient, science fiction flavored spin on metal. Their late ’80s/early ’90s albums may well be the pinnacle of the smart metal form, but for sheer ugly metal wallop, we’ve gotta go with the long-haired biker dudes of Saint Vitus . . . whose front man, Scott “Wino” Weinrich, just recently appeared with Dave Grohl’s all-star metal project, Probot, and has also guested with Clutch and continues to front his own band, Spirit Caravan. The Greater Band: Saint Vitus.

Naked Raygun vs. Die Kreuzen: A pair of Midwestern rockers, with Chicago’s Naked Raygun coming from a more punk tradition and Wisconsin’s Die Kreuzen playing more from the same sort of post-punk metal idiom that Saint Vitus (see above) offered around the same time. Spawned in the same city as the highly influential Big Black at around the same time, sharing members on occasion, Naked Raygun always somehow felt like Big Black’s slightly inferior doppelganger; if you wanted snarly Chicago rock, you’d generally pick up Steve Albini’s latest work before you grabbed something by Naked Raygun. Die Kreuzen were another one of those bands who probably benefited from being on the right label (Touch and Go) at the right time, when label loyalty meant something. Their third album, October File, is an all-time classic, though, far trumping anything that the Rayguns did, and if for no other reason than that, we declare . . . The Greater Band: Die Kreuzen.

Half Man Half Biscuit vs. Killdozer: Wisconsin’s Killdozer were another great Touch and Go Records band during that label’s glorious heyday, offering a series of records through the ’80s that featured some of the most grinding, crunchy rock music ever recorded. How did Nirvana producer Butch Vig develop the colossal sound he deployed on Nirvana’s Nevermind? By honing his studio chops with the far more ferocious and potent Killdozer back in the days before grunge brought guitars back to the radio. Like Pere Ubu and The Fall (discussed yesterday), Killdozer was blessed with a singer of undeniable personality and style: you knew you were listening to Killdozer when you heard Michael Gerald’s subsonic grumble and growl. Like those groups, too, Killdozer also offered smart lyrics . . . I say without a trace of exaggeration that Gerald’s best works stand toe-to-toe with classic American pieces by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. This was a man who knew his countrymen, for better or for worse, and knew how to tell you about them and their travails. Half Man Half Biscuit were an oddball English group who wrote about their countrymen in the same sorts of ways that Killdozer wrote about theirs, using all sorts of proper names and nouns that were probably meaningful to Brits of the day, but now leave the songs sounding like some sort of weird cryptic inside code. Which isn’t a bad thing, actually, since it adds to the carnival surrealism of the music. The Biscuit’s crowning achievement, the single “Dickie Davies Eyes,” is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded, bar none, hilarious and wise and hummable and weird, all at the same time. A classic, well worth hunting down. But Killdozer had at least a dozen classics of equal stature to that one, so we’ve got to give them the nod. The Greater Band: Killdozer.

Throwing Muses vs. Bongwater: Boston’s Throwing Muses were the first American band to appear on dreamy English proto-Goth/college-rock label 4AD. I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Their original line-up featured both Kristen Hersh and Tanya Donnelly, both reasonably bright lights in the literate modern rock pantheon; after Donnelly left to join The Breeders and (later) Belly, the Muses became Hersh’s vehicle, and the bright points became fewer and further between. Bongwater was a collaboration between performance artist/Hollywood B-lister Ann Magnuson and former Shockabilly/Butthole Surfers bassist Kramer, one of the most influential producers and record magnates of the past quarter century. It was a partnership that ultimately came close to wrecking both of their lives (not to mention Kramer’s record label, ShimmyDisc), but when they were on together, man, were they on, and everyone of their records (with the possible exception of Too Much Sleep, which is marred by a bad drum synth programming) is a classic. Arty and clever, but with a mean penchant for pure pop wizardry, Bongwater takes this contest easily. The Greater Band: Bongwater.

Dickies vs. Camper Van Beethoven: A pair of smart-assed California bands, with the Dickies staying relatively close to the mainstream of punk/pop fare, while the Campers roped in all sorts of international, country, ethnic and folk fare, whipping it into a stew of goodness that sounded amazingly fresh and unique in its time, before people did such things as play pastoral country rave-ups of Black Flag’s “Wasted,” to cite but one example. The Dickies made great music to play at frat parties and cookouts, easily trumping the lion’s share of their punky colleagues for smarts, hooks and chops, but the Campers made great, clever music that doesn’t require you to wear your party hat when you play it. The Greater Band: Camper Van Beethoven.

Spacemen 3 vs. Tragic Mulatto: Britain’s Spacemen 3 made challenging psychedelic rock that (at its best) proved just how evocative drone and trance could be, but at its worst showed just how dull drone and trance could be . . . with the line between those extremes being a pretty fine one, at times; they were good, but their promise really didn’t reach its full blossoming until founder Jason Pierce set off on his own with the superior Spiritualized. San Francisco’s Tragic Mulatto were sort of like a bizarro semi-distaff version of the Butthole Surfers: double drums anchored a thundering guitar/bass-freak-out assault, with bonus tuba and sax tossed into the mix for good measure. What made them most extraordinary, however, were the vocals of singer Flatula Lee Roth, who out-Grace Slicked Grace Slick for sheer alto singing power. Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” is one of rock’s greatest songs . . . but its definitive version is not Zep’s, it’s Tragic Mulatto’s. (Don’t smirk unless you’ve heard it . . . Flatula blows Robert Plant out of the water when it comes to over-the-top horny malevolence). Tragic Mulatto’s lyrics were violently, virulently dark and nasty, but they hammered their points home in ways that more subtle performers could only dream of. A classic rock horror show of titanic proportions, Tragic Mulatto somehow never managed to achieve even the level of demi-fame that many of their Alternative Tentacles Records stable mates managed. Pity. They were a mighty force. The Greater Band: Tragic Mulatto.

Big Black vs. Drivin’ n’ Cryin’: Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ were another great Southern band who got lost in the fog of REM’s ascendance to superstardom, although they were both more rootsy and more rocky than their college rock conquering colleagues. Their records are good, but none of them live up to the amazing potency of the band in its prime ripping the roof off of a Georgia concert hall back in the ’80s. Like Guadalcanal Diary, they were best appreciated live. Was it something in the water down there, maybe? Big Black was producer/writer Steve Albini’s first and greatest band, the vehicle that launched a thousand other indie bands, most of whom recorded their debut albums with Albini at the helm. Hateful, loud, shrill and confrontational, Big Black’s music that felt like the soundtrack for some awful, violent crime scene . . . which fit, since that was often what Albini chose to sing and write about. Their marriage of drum synth and guitar onslaught paved the way for bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, although Big Black could have eaten either of those follow-on bands for breakfast. No doubt who made the most fiery, influential music here. The Greater Band: Big Black.

Guided by Voices vs. Clutch: Critical heresy alert here! Guided by Voices are one of the most beloved, indie-underground bands of the past twenty years, as Robert Pollard’s evolving cast of characters have ground out album after album of the sorts of lo-fi, thoughtful rock virtually guaranteed to make critics ooze and gush. But despite a vast back catalog, they’ve never grabbed me and shaken me in any way that made me want to listen to them again. Clutch, on the other hand, have: they are a titanic and literate rock band who make tight, well-produced records and then take their songs on the road to play free-wheeling, transcendent concerts. Clutch’s Neil Fallon is one of the few modern rock writers who can hold a candle to Killdozer’s Michael Gerald when it comes to dark, cerebral, surreal snapshots of American life, and he’s as charismatic a performer as you’re ever likely to see. By maintaining the same, solid line-up throughout their existence, Clutch’s members have reached that point where their musical interactions are so much deeper and more profound than anything that the shambolic Guided by Voices have ever produced, or are ever likely to. No contest. The Greater Band: Clutch.

Teenage Fanclub vs. Felt: Another critical heresy alert! Scottish power poppers Teenage Fanclub have long made critics go gaga over their Big Stat-inspired music, but I’ve never heard anything by the Fanclub that touched me half as much as anything Big Star issued. They felt derivative, not inspired, easy on the ears, sure, but not memorable in the ways that so many other bands on this list are. Felt were a bit backwards-looking, too, but with more of Velvet Underground fetish than a Big Star fetish, aided by the fact that singer-songwriter Lawrence Hayward sounded like Lou Reed with an English accent. To their credit, though, Felt updated the Velvet chugga-chugga approach with some pretty interesting post-Television twin guitar work, deploying both elements on songs that found a nice balance between being too challenging or too accessible. Easy on the ears, like Teenage Fanclub, but with a bit more going on between the ears to boot. Since Felt imploded, Hayward has continued to make clever rock out of stock ’70s pieces with Denim and Go Kart Mozart. Worth researching. The Greater Band: Felt.

16 Horsepower vs. Sweep the Leg Johnny: Two excellent, contemporary American bands. Denver’s 16 Horsepower offers spooky, Southern-inflected alt-country rock defined by David Eugene Edwards’ distinctive nasal twang, living up to the promise that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds once offered, before they veered off into an unhealthy obsession with Neil Diamond-y piano balladry on their last two albums. Chicago’s Sweep the Leg Johnny are a truly unique beast, sort of a post-punk take on the original King Crimson approach to music, with sax and guitar dancing through a widely divergent collection of songs, some soft, some hard, some soft and hard. This one’s really a toss-up, but I boil it down to this: 16 Horsepower play within the rules of a reasonably established genre, and do it extremely well . . . but Sweep the Leg Johnny seem bound to build and explore their own unmapped genre, and that gives them the edge here. The Greater Band: Sweep the Leg Johnny.

Luna vs. Sloan: Luna were a superstar secret band of sorts when they were founded, with members of the Feelies, Galaxie 500 and the Chills forming the first incarnation, which made minimalist rock of a Velvet Underground variety. That Velvet connection was cemented when Sterling Morrison guested on 1994’s Bewitched, easily their best record. Like many Velvet-inspired, minimalism-inclined bands, Luna’s material tends not to reach out and grab you, although it almost always rewards repeated listening well. Sloan were arguably Canada’s premier pop-rock band (non-goofy division) of the ’90s, but their albums and the one concert I saw by them have always felt something like listening to or watching a very good set of impersonators impersonating Canada’s premier pop-rock band (non-goofy division), rather than seeing the real thing. There’s an air of contrivance there that I just can’t shake, although I can’t quite put my finger on why it feels that way. But it does, and therefore it’s easy to cite . . . The Greater Band: Luna.

Snog vs. Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci: Australia’s Snog make astounding techno/industrial music topped with severe political lyrics delivered in the most moving basso profundo this side of Swans’ Michael Gira. Their music has a great beat you can dance to . . . but makes you think, a lot, while you’re doing it. When Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci first started getting (mild) press interest on these shores, it was primarily to note that much of the material on the early records was sung in their native Welsh. But once you got past the initial novelty of that, the music beneath them was exquisite: well-written, beautiful, diverse, well-recorded and well-sung. Over the years, they’ve dropped a little bit of the baroque careening that defined those early Welsh released, settling into a dreamier, sometimes nearly country-tinged take on contemporary rock. They don’t kick you in the head (or the ass) as hard as Snog do, but the loveliness at the heart of all their songs gives the Gorky’s the advantage here. The Greater Band: Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci.

. . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead vs. Turbonegro: Austin’s interestingly named Trail of Dead (I ain’t typing the full name again) are the newest band in this competition, and their recorded body of work to date would indicate that they may well be the one with the most promise for the future. Their music rocks hard, but with all sorts of interesting atonal elements wrapped into the sonic mix, not layered on top of them like afterthoughts, as is the case with many other “anti-music” musicians. Each of their records has bettered the one that came before it, as they forge deeper into the strangeness that lies beyond the familiar surfaces of modern rock. Turbonegro are hellaciously powerful, too, but the Scandinavian sextet takes a more tongue-in-cheek approach to their music, wrapping huge ’70s style post-glam riffs around lyrics about sex, violence, and sex and violence, all delivered by a group of beefy performers who look something like The Village People in denim. The look and the lyrics make Turbonegro distinctive, but without those elements, their music could be any number of glam-flavored modern rock bands. Trail of Dead, on the other hand, always sound like Trail of Dead, and no one else. We’ll reward that innovation and future promise by declaring them . . . The Greater Band: . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead

Phew! And, so, now we’re down to our Final 32, with the next round’s matchups standing thusly:

GROUP ONE
Family vs. Magma
Flamin’ Groovies vs. Hawkwind

GROUP TWO
BeBop Deluxe vs. The Dictators
Can vs. The Residents

GROUP THREE
Wire vs. The Cramps
Black Flag vs. Pere Ubu

GROUP FOUR
The Birthday Party vs. Gang of Four
The Minutemen vs. The dBs

GROUP FIVE
The Lyres vs. Swans
Guadalcanal Diary vs. Saint Vitus

GROUP SIX
Die Kreuzen vs. Killdozer
Bongwater vs. Camper Van Beethoven

GROUP SEVEN
Tragic Mulatto vs. Big Black
Clutch vs. Felt

GROUP EIGHT
Sweep the Leg Johnny vs. Luna
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci vs. . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

I had originally planned to do the entire next round in one day (tomorrow) but I may decide to split that round into two days the same way that I did for the first round. Doing sixteen of these pairs at one sitting is a little tiresome . . . but, either way, tomorrow we continue to move closer to Rock’s Greatest Secret Band!

 

Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands (Part Three)

We’re down to 32 of the original 64 contenders . . . with the survivors and their opponents as follows:

GROUP ONE
Family vs. Magma
Flamin’ Groovies vs. Hawkwind

GROUP TWO
BeBop Deluxe vs. The Dictators
Can vs. The Residents

GROUP THREE
Wire vs. The Cramps
Black Flag vs. Pere Ubu

GROUP FOUR
The Birthday Party vs. Gang of Four
The Minutemen vs. The dBs

GROUP FIVE
The Lyres vs. Swans
Guadalcanal Diary vs. Saint Vitus

GROUP SIX
Die Kreuzen vs. Killdozer
Bongwater vs. Camper Van Beethoven

GROUP SEVEN
Tragic Mulatto vs. Big Black
Clutch vs. Felt

GROUP EIGHT
Sweep the Leg Johnny vs. Luna
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci vs. . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

So shall we boil it down to 16? Yes, we shall . . . but over two days: today I’m just gonna do Groups One through Four, leaving us with 24 tonight, before we do the other four groups and come up with our Sweet Sixteen tomorrow.

Let’s do it, shall we? Yes, we shall.

Family vs. Magma: As noted in the first round, Family are known better in America for their relatively short-lived alumni than they are for their core, longstanding members: singer Roger Chapman, guitarist John “Charlie” Whitney and drummer Rob Townsend. Thing is, though, that as good as Family’s rotating pool of bassists and keyboardists were, what made ’em so very, very special were the vocals, guitars and (to a slightly lesser extent) drums. Whitney and Chapman were also an exceptional songwriting team, offering clever (yet punter-friendly) lyrics and a weird progressive blues music, pretty consistently throughout Family’s seven year run. Their best album, Bandstand, is one of the great lost records of the ’70s, with the Whitney-Chapman-Townsend core joined by John Wetton and Poli Palmer, together creating a very distinctive, very powerful album that’ll linger with you long after you hear it the first time. Magma, too, created extraordinary music, but of a completely different bent, with strains of opera and free jazz swirling around the pulverizing, precise percussion of bandleader Christian Vander. As good and adventurous as their music is, though, the sci-fi concept album themes that ran through all their best records feels a bit precious and dated these days, while Family’s rowdy odes to drinking and love and drinking some more make for some pretty timeless stuff . . . played with punch and passion. The Greater Band: Family.

Flamin’ Groovies vs. Hawkwind: The original Flamin’ Groovies were a wild and fiery San Francisco band, debuting right around the time that the Bay City’s music scene was moving in the exact opposite direction, seeking psychedelic freak-out and freeform improv instead of short, sharp rockin’ ravers. The focus of aural attention, and the most provocative element of the group’s seminal first three records was wildman singer Roy Loney. After 1971’s Teenage Head, Loney split for a solo career, leaving the band in the hands of guitarist Cyril Jordan, who took ’em to England, where they issued two more fantastic records with Dave Edmunds manning the boards (Shake Some Action and Now!), then began a long, slow slide into mediocrity, which continues to this day. Hawkwind grew out of the British blues busking movement before beefing themselves into a electric and electronic juggernaut, merging the best features of metronomic Krautrock with the best features of noodly experimental sound manipulation and the best features of straight four on the floor rock and roll to pioneer the sound now largely known as “Blanga” in the Hawkosphere. (Curious side note . . . let me tell you something: I kinda wish I’d trademarked that word with that definition, since I coined it around 1994 in a thread on the defunct CompuServe Rocknet forum with Steve Pond, guitarist of Hawkwind spin-off band Inner City Unit. I wrote the Hawkwind Blanga Guide in 1995, a bloke named Dave Rice html’ed it, and Steve put it up on his website, where it remains to this day, people reading it and assuming that the word “blanga” just sorta happened or has just sorta been part of the picture since time immemorial. Well . . . it hasn’t, but I’m glad that it’s caught on, since that means it was right, somehow). Anyway, Hawkwind have been doing their Blanga thing for over thirty years, with one of the most knotty family trees (or, actually, more of a family vine actually) of any rock band of equal tenure, sometimes producing brilliant studio records, sometimes producing stinkers, sometimes issuing and reissuing the same material over and over again, sometimes coming up with new stuff. While their material of the past decade has certainly been less convincing that the material they issued in their first two decades, the quality drop off hasn’t been quite as catastrophic as it was for the Flamin’ Groovies. Plus, their most fertile and productive period(s) produced far more fertile and productive records than the Groovies ever managed, leading us to declare . . . The Greater Band: Hawkwind.

BeBop Deluxe vs. The Dictators: When I saw this match-up on the list yesterday, my initial gut reaction was “No contest, Dictators advance easily.” But then I went home last night and listened to the Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy and BeBop Deluxe’s Bop to the Red Noise compilation . . . and I’m thinking differently today. While I admire the Dictators commitment to four-on-the-floor rock, particularly during an era when such things were well out of step with the spirit of the age, and while I appreciate them as a bridge between the MCS/Stooges Detroit axis and the Ramones/Everyone Else New York axis, when I remove that historical perspective and just listen to their material now, it’s just sorta . . . rudimentary, I guess, with a little bit too much winking and nodding in the background: you can hear the very intelligent guys in this band thinking real hard about how to not sound real intelligent sometimes. BeBop Deluxe, on the other hand, leaned pretty danged far in the other direction: they were playing poppy rock songs, but embellishing them with all sorts of literary and technical references and techniques that made them sound, perhaps, like more than they were. The spawn of the Dictators litter the face of the world today, as you can trace their family tree through punk to grunge to modern metal to neopunk and back again. BeBop Deluxe? Other than perhaps the New Romantic movement in the ’80s, it’s hard to think what they spawned, except for Bill Nelson’s solo career, which has actually been quite rich and rewarding, if deep beneath the radar. So . . . I’m a bit tepid on this one, at this point, but I think I’m gonna lean in the direction of BeBop Deluxe, if for no other reasons than because (1) the Dictators do enjoy a certain cache in critical circles that makes their profile higher than their record sales would necessarily indicate, similar to the Ramones or the Velvet Underground, but to an obviously lesser degree, and (2) because you really have to stretch deep into quasi-official, side project and live discs to consider the Dictators to have met the basic five-album criteria that framed this process at the start, while BeBop Deluxe managed to produce five solid, self-standing studio albums, plus a gaggle of singles. Not the strongest endorsement, but . . . The Greater Band: BeBop Deluxe.

Can vs. The Residents: On some plane, Can were most simply a jam band . . . albeit a very, very, very good jam band. Their early records and concerts tended to be heavy on improv and/or experimental efforts, with those perfect Jaki Leibezeit drum beats making everything tick along like clockwork, often over extended periods of time: their classic Malcolm Mooney-fortified “Yoo Doo Right” is one of the greatest metronomic, two-chord vamps ever recorded. During their Damo Suzuki phase, they grew increasingly experimental and atonal, but more interesting for it. Their latter albums (some with Traffic’s Roscoe Gee and Repob Kwaku Baah along for the ride) were far better produced and composed affairs, but they lacked some of the zip of the wild and wooly early records. You can’t deny their influence (on techno, electronica, trance, drone and all movements that involve those elements), their talent or their willingness to do things the “wrong” way, although you probably can question the wisdom of their continuing on after it seemed the inspiration had begun to run dry. The Residents, whoever they are, have never seemed to run out of inspiration or ideas: if anything, they’re maddening because just when you start to like something they’re doing, they will invariably change it. And while some of those changes have been clunkers, many of them have been sublime and inspired, and the quality of their work has remained exceptionally high throughout their long, weird career; personally, I hold their last full length studio album, Demons Dance Alone, to be one of the best three or four records in their endless discography. To be able to produce a masterpiece like that so deep into a career is quite an accomplishment, and so both for their back catalog, the promise of things to come, and their intense dedication to remaining as far below the radar as one possible can, we recognize . . . The Greater Band: The Residents..

Wire vs. The Cramps: The Cramps are an explosive band who have done an amazing job of digging up and preserving some of rock n’ roll’s greatest lost songs, while crafting an exceptional collection of new material that fits perfectly and seamlessly with that older material. Wire, on the other hand, are an explosive band who have done an amazing job mapping and pioneering the directions in which can, and should, move forward. And we’ve clearly gotta pick the visionaries over the archivists here. The Greater Band: Wire.

Black Flag vs. Pere Ubu: Because American hardcore can be such a reductive, simplistic music form, it’s easy to pigeonhole Black Flag (arguably the Grandpappies of American Hardcore) as a reductive, simplistic band. But, as noted yesterday, they weren’t. Even though dozens of lyricists/songwriters ply the spoken word circuit these days, it was a radical departure when Henry Rollins first did it in the ’80s. Or, as another example, listen to 1985’s The Process of Weeding Out to hear what it sounds like when you graft 12-tone music theory atop a punk rock engine. It’s scary and bracing and experimental and pioneering in the best senses of those words. Which, of course, is a good description of Pere Ubu as well: few bands have pushed the boundaries of rock music as far as they have, usually managing to stay just this side of breaking it, with the end result being some odd, odd songs that rock and swing like nobody’s business. Like the Residents, Pere Ubu continues to make great music deep into their career, while Black Flag (and its many members) seem to be somewhat past their musical peaks at this point; they’re still good at what they do, but they don’t seem to be blazing any new musical paths. I love Black Flag to death, and they’re right up there on the list of “Rock Bands That Changed My Life,” but in good conscience, it’s hard to pass up Pere Ubu. Plus, it makes me feel less bad about passing on the Dictators, since Ubu and their precursor band, Rocket From the Tombs, and their other Cleveland colleagues also filled a similar key evolutionary space between Detroit and New York as the Dictators did. Sorta. The Greater Band: Pere Ubu.

The Birthday Party vs. Gang of Four: Not much of a contest here, since Gang of Four squeaked in yesterday with a decided lack of enthusiasm, while The Birthday Party reach this level with raging, screaming, flying colors. Had Gang of Four’s initial line-up (Andy Gill, Jon King, David Allen, Hugo Burnham) managed to slug it out for a few more albums, they mighta woulda coulda shoulda been stronger contenders, but the chemistry seemed to abate a bit as the rhythm section evolved (although, to her credit, I adore Sara Lee as a player . . . I just liked her better with League of Gentlemen than I did with Gang of Four). The Birthday Party managed to maintain their exceptionally high standards throughout their short, violent life. Roland S. Howard’s guitar work still sounds unlike anybody who’s played the instrument before or since, while the Calvert-Pew-Harvey (or, later, just Pew-Harvey) rhythm section rumbled like something out a nightmare, the details of which were invariably described in Nick Cave’s roaring vocals. Ugly music, and beautiful because of it. The Greater Band: The Birthday Party.

The Minutemen vs. the dBs: Hmmm . . . another no contest. The dBs were nice enough, sure, but the Minutemen were transcendent, taking the jazz-punk elements that Black Flag dabbled with, and running as hard and far as they could with them. Double Nickels on the Dime may well be the greatest album of the ’80s, and you’ve never heard so much going on in such short songs are these . . . each and every one them fascinating. Did I mention “no contest” yet? The Greater Band: The Minutemen.

So! For Groups One to Four, we have the following Group championships to look forward to in two days:

GROUP ONE: Family vs. Hawkwind

GROUP TWO: BeBop Deluxe vs. The Residents

GROUP THREE: Wire vs. Pere Ubu

GROUP FOUR: The Birthday Party vs. The Minutemen

Tomorrow, we will come up with the finalists for Groups Five Through Eight. Thanks to all those who have sent feedback and input so far . . . I’m taking it into consideration, and its good to hear what these matchups bring to your minds, since sometimes those thoughts are very different from my own.

Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands (Part Four)

Okay, I lied. I found some free time, and am gonna try to finish the second round today, rather than tomorrow, so we can pick the elite eight on Thursday, final four on Friday, and name the champ on Saturday, which is the day that I’ll need to start writing daily poems again if I’m not gonna get behind schedule. A writing geek’s work is never done . . .

Here’s the pairings for the second half of the second round:

GROUP FIVE
The Lyres vs. Swans
Guadalcanal Diary vs. Saint Vitus

GROUP SIX
Die Kreuzen vs. Killdozer
Bongwater vs. Camper Van Beethoven

GROUP SEVEN
Tragic Mulatto vs. Big Black
Clutch vs. Felt

GROUP EIGHT
Sweep the Leg Johnny vs. Luna
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci vs. . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

And here’s the results . . .

The Lyres vs. Swans: On some plane, the Lyres sound is really the quintessential sound of rock and roll, with organ. Jeff Connolly has got one of those perfect rock voices, and (like the Cramps) he resuscitates lost classics and mixes them with originals cut from the same sorts of cloth, creating a nice and crunchy and sweaty whole that’s appealing and engaging, bound to make your toes tap and your hips swivel in just the ways that rootsy retro rock is supposed to. Swans, on the other hand, on average may well be one of the least toe-tapping bands in the world, particularly on their earliest albums, filled with 2/4, two-chord sludge fests of the most debasing and deadening variety, all capped with Michael Gira’s mournful moan. The thing about Swans, though, is that once you acclimatized yourself to those early discs, and came to understand, if not appreciate, what they were all about, they changed the rules on you, just a little bit at a time, so that (with the exception of The Burning World), each record and tour felt kinda like the one before it, only a little bit better, a little bit richer, and a little bit fuller. The base brutality remained, but it was better dressed, and the nearly orchestral dirges on their later albums are somehow transcendent and beautiful, while not losing the disturbing edges that defined the early works. The Lyres power is power of the moment: you hear their music, and it makes you move. Swans power was lasting power: you hear their music, and it haunts you for a week afterwards. I like things that last. The greater band: Swans.

Guadalcanal Diary vs. Saint Vitus: This competition is kinda similar to the one we just finished, with sludge going head-to-head against crowd pleasing rock. Perhaps two of the most underappreciated bands of the ’80s, Guadalcanal Diary and Saint Vitus sounded better live and made better records than most of their peers, but somehow never quite managed to get the breaks they needed to penetrate the greater public consciousness in any meaningful way. Guadalcanal Diary offered zippy power pop, Saint Vitus countered with grinding post-Black Sabbath doom metal, made slightly more diverse over the course of their career as they went through three different lead singers. Unlike Swans, though, Saint Vitus never really rose out of the sludge much. Guadalcanal Diary, in their original run, got better through three records before closing with the erratic backwards step Flip Flop. So as I think about, it occurs to me that both of these solid bands never really managed to live up to their potential, which makes me pretty sure that whoever advances here is gonna get stomped in the next round by somebody who did. Given that, I’m gonna pick the accessible rock over the sludge this time, since I went the opposite way in picking Swans in the prior contest. Enjoy the victory, promising rock band, since it’s likely to be your last. The Greater Band: Guadalcanal Diary.

Die Kreuzen vs. Killdozer: It’s the battle of Wisconsin here, with Madison’s Killdozer slugging it out against Milwaukee’s Die Kreuzen. And when I say slugging, I mean slugging: both of these bands are exceptionally ferocious musically, which makes me wonder what they’re putting in the water (or snow)(or cheese) up there. Were there any justice in this world, the Nirvana-spearheaded grunge revolution would have happened in Wisconsin in the ’80s, with Killdozer and Die Kreuzen playing the parts that Nirvana and Soundgarden and (to a lesser extent) Pearl Jam played post-1991. They were both that good, and they were doing flannel-powered rock long before it was cool (or lucrative) to do so. As it happened, though, Die Kreuzen fizzled out right around 1991, just when the record-buying world might have finally been ready to embrace them. Killdozer’s original line-up burnt down around the same time, although they did soldier on to release two more fine albums with new guitarist Paul Zagoras in the mid-’90s. When you go back and listen to Die Kreuzen now, though, it’s hard to not hear Nirvana; they pre-dated Seattle’s most famous band, but plowed similar turf. When you go back and listen to Killdozer now, however, they still sound like nobody but Killdozer, which is (all things considered) a greater way to sound than what Die Kreuzen (or Nirvana) offered. The Greater Band: Killdozer.

Bongwater vs. Camper Van Beethoven: Two very clever bands, one based in New York, one based in California, both reflecting their homelands’ characters in their music: Bongwater was urban and arty and oblique with roots in strange jazz rock improv and performance art, Camper Van Beethoven was rural and rootsy and friendly-sounding and shaggy in an amiable sunny college town sorta way. Bongwater flamed out dramatically after their finest and final studio album, the wryly titled The Big Sell Out, while the Campers soldiered on for probably a bit longer than they needed to, before fracturing into Cracker and The Monks of Doom, neither of whom were anywhere near as engaging as their parent band. The Monks, for the record, were the better of the post-Camper groups, although they toiled in obscurity while David Lowery’s Cracker managed a reasonably successful crossover into the pop mainstream. The lure of their original band has proven strong, though, and Camper Van Beethoven’s key members have regrouped over the past few years to play some shows and issue some music (including a long rumored, but kinda pointless, cut by cut cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk) . . . and, come to think of it, the too-cute college smugness that permeates that album casts something of a pall over their recorded oeuvre. Bongwater quit while they were (creatively) on top, and then commenced to suing the hell out of each other. If that ain’t rock and roll, what is? The Greater Band: Bongwater.

Tragic Mulatto vs. Big Black: I do adore Tragic Mulatto (perhaps the most obscure band of the original 64 I picked, with the possible exception of Wigwam), and consider them to be the best of the Alternative Tentacles bands not named after a dead president and his dead brother. But Big Black? Sheesh . . . it’s hard to pick against them, since they influenced legions of bands who followed (both stylistically and in a hands-on fashion, as Big Black singer-songwriter-guitarist Steve Albini went on to produce . . . well, pretty much everybody, come to think of it), and made great, bilious records while they were together. Anytime you hear a hyper-amped guitar/bass team riffing atop a drum synthesizer, you can thank (or curse) Big Black for blazing that trail when synths were viewed as evil and wicked tools of the big haired new wave set. If sent to a desert island with only a dozen songs, I’m pretty sure that Big Black’s “Kerosene” would have to be one of them. You haven’t heard guitar-fueled rage and aggression done properly until you’ve heard that track, and its lyrics will haunt you long after the ringing in your ears dies down. The Greater Band: Big Black.

Clutch vs. Felt: This one kinda feels like a musical variant of “Bambi Meets Godzilla.” In one corner, the deliciously, deliriously crunchy Clutch, arguably the hardest playing on the contemporary concert circuit. In the other corner, we have Britain’s Felt, who were sort of a more sensitive, soulful successor to such cerebral types as the Velvet Underground and Television. (Which is not, mind you, to imply that Clutch is not cerebral: they are, and that makes some of the stuff that falls out of singer Neil Fallon’s mouth hair-raisingly delicious, in a surreal and shocking sort of way). Felt were never really much of a band, as much as they were the vision of leader Lawrence Hayward; their debut recording, Index, was created by Lawrence in his bedroom on a cassette recorder, and he pretty much maintained that degree of control throughout Felt’s run, although guitarist Maurice Deebank played an important role on their best recordings. Clutch was seemingly born full grown; their debut EP is every bit as stomptastic as their latest elpee, Blast Tyrant. We have to reward that consistency and that power. The Greater Band: Clutch.

Sweep the Leg Johnny vs. Luna: An interesting pairing, with Luna’s post-Velvet Underground jones going up against Sweep the Leg Johnny’s post-King Crimson sax-and-guitar workouts, sprinkled with a little Mission of Burma abrasion. Luna are certainly the more established of the pair, with roots going back into ’80s college rock, high profile guests and (more recently) the production team responsible for helping Flaming Lips make the leap to pop stardom. Sweep the Leg Johnny have, uh, none of those things. Luna are a lovely band, but there’s something more urgent about Sweep the Leg Johnny that makes me want to lean their way: they’re not continuing to hone and refine an existing family tree of rock, they’re more trying to pull the tree out of the ground and make book cases out of it. That carries the day for me, although I wish that Luna had gone up against (say) Guadalcanal Diary or Saint Vitus in this round, so I coulda felt good about passing them on to the next round. Oh well . . . I have a feeling they’re poised, at last, for some major crossover success in the future, while the Johnny’s will toil in relative obscurity for the rest of their careers, recognized only by music geeks like me. So, hey, I might as well recognize ’em good: The Greater Band: Sweep the Leg Johnny.

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci vs. . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Can we get some longer band names, here, please? Yeesh! Austin’s Trail of Dead are noisy and raw, kinda like Sweep the Leg Johnny, minus the saxophone and math fetish. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci are lovely and pastoral, with occasional forays into weird psychedelic and other forms of musical surrealism. Gorky’s have been through their share of personnel transitions, but they remain solid through change, their albums continuing to grow and expand their ranges and their songwriting skills. Trail of Dead have grown, too, albeit over a much shorter period of time. So, just to be perverse, since I picked a younger, harsher band in the prior contest, I’ll go with a (slightly) older, less harsh band in this round. Although, honestly, age and harshness aside, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci have got both a better back catalog and brighter prospects than Trail of Dead have. So I’m not just being perverse . . . I’m just using perverse logic to explain something that I feel in my gut, and that something is this . . . The Greater Band: Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.

And, phew, that takes us down to the Sweet Sixteen, as follows, repeating the other half of this round, just so you’ve got the whole list on the plate in front of you:

GROUP ONE: Family vs. Hawkwind

GROUP TWO: BeBop Deluxe vs. The Residents

GROUP THREE: Wire vs. Pere Ubu

GROUP FOUR: The Birthday Party vs. The Minutemen

GROUP FIVE: Swans vs. Guadalcanal Diary

GROUP SIX: Killdozer vs. Bongwater

GROUP SEVEN: Big Black vs. Clutch

GROUP EIGHT: Sweep the Leg Johnny vs. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci

Tomorrow, we take it down to eight, one step closer to identifying Rock’s Greatest Secret Band. Yee haw!

 

Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands (Part Five)

Sorry to those who usually check the blog in the morning . . . we had some technical problems today, but all’s back and swinging again at this point.

Today we go from Sweet Sixteen to Elite Eight. The contenders, please . . .

GROUP ONE: Family vs. Hawkwind

GROUP TWO: BeBop Deluxe vs. The Residents

GROUP THREE: Wire vs. Pere Ubu

GROUP FOUR: The Birthday Party vs. The Minutemen

GROUP FIVE: Swans vs. Guadalcanal Diary

GROUP SIX: Killdozer vs. Bongwater

GROUP SEVEN: Big Black vs. Clutch

GROUP EIGHT: Sweep the Leg Johnny vs. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci

And, so, to the competition . . .

Family vs. Hawkwind: Family issued eight “official” albums between 1968 and 1973, with half-a-dozen different lineups. Hawkwind has issued something like 50 “official” albums between 1970 and the present (along with literally hundreds and hundreds of quasi-official, bootleg, alternate label and/or compilation discs), with almost every one of them featuring a different band lineup; only singer-guitarist Dave Brock has survived from the beginning. Both bands, while virtually unknown in the States (Hawkwind has a little bit more visibility here, by dint of their longevity and because Motorhead’s Lemmy was a member of the group’s quintessential lineup), were popular live draws in Britain and Europe in their respective heydays; I don’t know it for a fact, but I’d wager a nickel that they had to have shared a stage at some muddy English festival or another in the early ’70s. Hawkwind generally felt (and feels) like an enthusiastic collection of musical amateurs, making the most of fairly rudimentary material, none of which is built around technical flash. Family was a band of players: John “Charlie” Whitney, for instance, at the top of his game was good a guitarist as you’re gonna hear this side of Robert Fripp or Steve Howe, and he deployed his chops on much simpler music than either of them did, although Family’s music was still a good deal more complex than Hawkwind’s was (or is). As formidable and, dare I say, venerable as Hawkwind are, as a longtime fan and collector, I can’t help but feel like they’ve been milking their fans for quite some time; I just saw a blurb noting that their new studio album leads off with the single “Spirit of the Age,” which is a great song, although it originally appeared back in 1977 and has graced countless other Hawkwind records since then. Do we really need a new studio version? No . . . but are we gonna pay for it anyway? Probably. When Family ran out of new ideas and/or steam, they moved on, departing with the very solid It’s Only A Movie, the last track of which was the aptly titled “Check Out.” If you gotta go, that’s the way to do it. The Greater Band: Family.

BeBop Deluxe vs. The Residents: Not much of a contest here. BeBop Deluxe squeaked by the first two rounds, defeating the low impact Camel and the one-dimensional Dictators. The Residents, though, are neither low impact nor one-dimensional: BeBop Deluxe’s interesting spins on elegant post-glam pop rock look just as limited in scope when compared to the Residents’ panoply of successes as the Dictators’ hard rockin’ punk looked in comparison to BeBop Deluxe. I could explain in more depth the diversity and impact of the Residents’ contributions to modern music, but I’m gonna save that for the next round, when they’re likely to go against someone slightly more formidable than BeBop Deluxe, who are worthy, but not that worthy. The Greater Band: The Residents.

Wire vs. Pere Ubu: This, on the other hand, is a tough, tough contest, and I’m gonna not like leaving either of these bands on the cutting room floor . . . but it’s hard to work out a tie in a head-to-head tournament, so tough decisions must be made. Wire issued three incredible studio albums in the ’70s, morphing in most rapid fashion from an arty punk band to a punky art band. Then they broke up. In the late ’80s, they regrouped to issue five more albums, this time exploring a form of metronomic, monotonic repetition they dubbed “dugga;” while most of those records were quite good, the whiff of over-computerization began to permeate their music, and they broke up again. At the turn of the new century, they regrouped to issue a pair of EPs and an absolute jaw-dropping album, Send, that rocked harder than anything they’d done since 1977’s Pink Flag, while retaining all the odd rhythmic and sound texturing techniques they’d developed during the ’80s. Pere Ubu only had one significant hiatus to Wire’s two: from 1982-1988. Before the hiatus, five albums, ranging from the awesome The Modern Dance to the not-that-great Song of the Bailing Man. After the hiatus, seven more excellent albums that carried the trademark Ubu sounds into realms of sweet pop (Cloudland), dirty traveling blues (St. Arkansas), and clattering art-rock (The Tenement Year). Their last album, the aforementioned St. Arkansas, is a gem; perhaps not quite the coup that Wire’s Send was, but damned close. Both bands are, at heart, great rhythmic rock bands . . . but both bands toy with the form in a variety of dramatic and innovative ways, using the studio and/or electronic effects and/or odd instruments and/or vocals to add spice to everything they do. Which leaves me sitting here staring at the computer (for about ten minutes now), trying to figure out which way to go on this one. I guess . . . I’m gonna have to lean the Ubu way: they didn’t have the punk revolution to inspire them and prove that “amateurs” could be great musicians, as Wire did, but instead created their own idiom in the cultural wasteland of early ’70s Cleveland. They’re still together, still making great music, but they’ve managed to spend more time working together than Wire (with their pair of long hiatuses) has been able to do, without diminishing the average quality of their work. So with sadness in my heart, we bid Wire adieu and name . . . The Greater Band: Pere Ubu.

The Birthday Party vs. The Minutemen: Yeesh . . . and this one doesn’t get any easier. Both of these bands had short, extraordinary careers, the Minutemen’s ending in physical tragedy (D. Boon’s death in a van accident), The Birthday Party’s ending in an implosion of psychological bile and venom and bitterness (with Nick Cave and Mick Harvey continuing to work together in the Bad Seeds, Rowland S. Howard joining Crime and the City Solution and, later, These Immortal Souls, before becoming hip guest guitarist for artsy folks like Lydia Lunch, and Tracy Pew vanishing from the musical picture, dying soon thereafter from complications of epilepsy). The Minutemen, despite all of their weird musical inspirations, odd time signatures and political leanings, were very much a band of the people; they may have been playing for themselves first, but they loved their audiences and their audiences loved them. (While I don’t normally have any sort of emotional reaction when famous people that I didn’t know die, I did feel a palpable grief when I heard of Boon’s death). The Birthday Party, on the other hand, were about assault: I never saw them live, but I have seen two video documentaries of their performances, and they utterly bludgeoned their audiences into submission before the show was done (literally, in one case, as Cave boots a punter in the head) . . . nobody went home feeling uplifted those nights. The Birthday Party’s studio works have an undeniable and hard-to-describe potency to them (it’s probably the faint whiff of menace that their live shows involved wafting through the stereo speakers), but they’re hard to listen to for very long (which is probably why they shifted to issuing EPs only toward the end of their career). The Minutemen, on the other hand, retain a crucial balance between challenging and engaging the listener, pulling you into their music in ways that the Birthday Party’s shock tactics wouldn’t allow. The Birthday Party were a mighty, mighty, visionary and powerful band, but for the purposes of this competition, we declare . . . The Greater Band: The Minutemen.

Swans vs. Guadalcanal Diary: This, on the other hand, is a pretty easy one: Swans long and varied career easily trumps Guadalcanal Diary’s short and sweet one. Guad Di knocked out Saint Vitus and the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, but against the juggernaut of the Lower East Side’s most potent sludgemasters-cum-symphonists, their forward progress grinds to a sudden and jarring stop. Like the Residents above, I’ll save the additional details of Swans’ case until the next round, when the decision isn’t as clear cut as this one is. So as much as loved seeing Guadalcanal Diary in concert, I’ve got to tip the hat to . . . The Greater Band: Swans.

Killdozer vs. Bongwater: The Midwest takes on Manhattan, as Michael Gerald’s stomping behemoth of a corn fed rock band goes toe to toe with Kramer and Ann Magnuson’s urban urbane little performance art ensemble that rocked. Magnuson’s lyrics were dramatically different from Gerald’s (and her speak-singing vocal style was also about as far removed from Gerald’s Cookie Monster with a Cold shredding as is humanly possible), although both of them offered sharp and insightful takes on the human experience, often taking on the roles of different characters in their first person songs. Both bands featured superb production: by Kramer in Bongwater’s case and by Butch Vig in Killdozer’s. Both bands had a penchant for super covers of not-so-obvious songs. Bongwater’s classic reinterpretations included (among others) Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part II,” the Beatles’ “Rain,” Roky Erickson’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” Slapp Happy’s “The Drum,” Dudley Moore’s “Bedazzled,” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Killdozer, for their part, put out an entire album of crunchy classic rock covers called For Ladies Only (named after the Steppenwolf tune), and also did such deliciously perverse numbers as Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” and Jessi Colter’s “I’m Not Lisa,” both of which were delivered in the same first person voices their originators intended, but sung in Gerald’s best guttural monster voice. Killdozer probably edges Bongwater out when you run for the distance, though, just for balancing their excellent live work with an ongoing series of excellent, long tours; while there was a live four-piece version of Bongwater, they weren’t the road warriors that they’re Wisconsin contemporaries were. The Greater Band: Killdozer.

Big Black vs. Clutch: Another tough one. Accessible, intelligent post-industrial music begins with Big Black, and nobody else has ever gotten guitars to sound on record the way that they sounded on the classic Big Black discs. Clutch, for their part, sound like a lot of other people . . . only a helluva lot better: they’re not really pioneering anything, they’re mastering it. Live, Clutch are clearly the superior band. In the studio, though, I give Big Black the edge: they produced less material than West Virginia’s finest, but it was of a higher overall quality throughout their creative life together. Big Black also had great design sense: their parody of Kraftwerk’s Man Machine cover is a classic, their Big Black logo remains a very popular t-shirt icon among folks who wanna show you how much they know about good music (wonder how many Big Black t-shirt wearing folks have never heard the band? I’m guessing more than a few), their original “Headache” EP had the most appalling cover photo I’ve ever seen (autopsy photos of a shotgun-to-the-head suicide victim), and the cover to Songs About Fucking has probably offended more unsuspecting record store shoppers than any other. Musically, Big Black were clearly more influential than Clutch, although Clutch are clearly reaching a lot more people than Big Black are these days, based on the many crowded, enthusiastic shows that I’ve attended over the past five years or so. In fact, with the lead single from Blast Tyrant getting good spins on modern rock radio, and with a solid body of major label releases behind them, Clutch are probably right on the cusp of not really being a “hidden band” at all. And, for the purposes of this competition, I’m gonna let that be the determining factor, same way I did yesterday for Luna. I have more fun going to Clutch concerts, but for this competition, I decree . . . The Greater Band: Big Black.

Sweep the Leg Johnny vs. Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci: The lowest profile competition of this round, by far. But not the lowest quality: both of these bands are admirable, both of them issue fine music. Chicago’s Sweep the Leg Johnny are the more challenging of the pair, offering longer, more complex song structures than the Welsh Gorky’s, although the Gorky’s often offer far more complex arrangements to their music (particularly on their early albums) than the instrumentally straightforward Johnny’s offer. And, as far as the sticking-in-your-head department goes, the Gorky’s win hands down, since they are truly gifted in melody making, leaving their songs to rattle around in your head, popping up when you least expect them to, sometimes weeks after you’ve heard them. Sweep the Leg Johnny may someday grow to be as accomplished and diverse as Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, but they’re not there yet. The Greater Band: Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci.

And, voila, we’re down to the Elite Eight. We can begin to combine the groups at this point, and look forward to picking the Final Four tomorrow, using the following competitions:

GROUPS ONE/TWO: Family vs. The Residents

GROUPS THREE/FOUR: Pere Ubu vs. The Minutemen

GROUPS FIVE/SIX: Swans vs. Killdozer

GROUPS SEVEN/EIGHT: Big Black vs. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci

Stay tuned!!

Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands (Part Six)

Today’s the day that we go from the Elite Eight to the Final Four. Tomorrow, we will do a round robin of the survivors (each one going against every other) to determine Rock’s Greatest Secret Band. Today’s competitions are:

GROUPS ONE/TWO: Family vs. The Residents

GROUPS THREE/FOUR: Pere Ubu vs. The Minutemen

GROUPS FIVE/SIX: Swans vs. Killdozer

GROUPS SEVEN/EIGHT: Big Black vs. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci

And here’s the play-by-play analysis . . .

Family vs. The Residents: Family’s had some tough competition in the earlier rounds (The Good Rats, Magma, Hawkwind), so I’ve written a good bit about them already, but here’s the summary: they were a superb blues based band with progressive rock streaks to their work, they were graced with a strong, distinctive singer in Roger Chapman, they were instrumentally solid (particularly in the case of guitarist John “Charlie” Whitney), they were a big festival draw in England, their better known alumni included Ric Grech (Blind Faith), John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia) and Jim Cregan (Rod Stewart’s band). Solid! The Residents, on the other hand, kinda outclassed their competition in the first three rounds, going up against BeBop Deluxe, Can (although, actually, that was kind of a tough one) and Chrome, so I haven’t really made their case particularly deeply. So . . . their first album, Meet the Residents, came out in 1974, although there are recordings that have been issued since then that go back to the late ’60s. Their second album, Third Reich and Roll, was an amazing deconstruction of a bunch of “Nuggets” era fifties and sixties pop/rock songs, and it came with what’s been recognized as one of the first true music videos; the Residents discovered video while most folks were still playing with film, and their aborted movie, Vileness Fats, from that era shows that they were pushing the envelope with the technology, even then. After a few more challenging records, 1978’s moderately accessible Duck Stab/Buster and Glen was a mild pre-college-rock type success, paving the way for 1979’s Eskimo, which purported to be an ethnomusicological study of Inuit music and culture (and was often reported as such) although it was, in actually, entirely a fabrication. More famously, that album marked the debut of Residents’ trademark eyeballs-in-tuxedos costumes (prior to that point, they had used a variety of costumes to hide themselves). 1980’s The Commercial Album was a jolly deconstruction of advertising ethics, featuring 40 one-minute songs, each of which were then played during ad time purchased on radio. The ’80s saw the ambitious Mole Trilogy, the American Composers series, and the evolving works that grew into Cube-E and The King and I (which explained American music in three easy steps: Cowboy songs, Gospel and Elvis . . . who was then destroyed by the Beatles). In the ’90s, the Residents moved into CD-ROM technology, pretty much before anyone else did, with the award-winning Freak Show, Gingerbread Man and Bad Day on the Midway releases. Their last two major studio releases have looked at curious stories from the Bible (Wormwood) and the karmic impacts of September 11th (Demons Dance Alone). And . . . they’ve done all that without ever identifying themselves or removing their stage masks. How much more secret can you get? The Greater Band: The Residents.

Pere Ubu vs. The Minutemen: The Minutemen’s flame burned quickly and bright: between 1980 and 1985, the band issued five EPs and five albums on SST Records, all of them keepers, while also maintaining an intense tour schedule, nationwide. The fun came to a terrible stop at the end of ’85 when singer-guitarist D. Boon died in an auto accident. The group’s first posthumous record was Ballot Result, a sprawling three disc live set featuring tracks picked by fans, who had mailed in postcards that were included in the Three Way Tie (For Last) release. There was probably no more fitting way to send the Minutemen off than with a fan salute like that. Pere Ubu grew out of the creatively fertile early ’70s Cleveland music community (which no one noticed at the time, although later books like Clinton Heylin’s From the Velvets to the Voidoids shone a flashlight under that particular musical rock, long after its denizens had escaped or eaten each other), merging aggressive, propulsive rock with more freeform improvisational/confrontational fare of the Captain Beefheart/Frank Zappa school. They suffered their band tragedy early on their career: founding guitarist Peter Laughner died young in 1977 from lifestyle complications (thereby cementing his legend in true rock hero-making fashion), although he had already been ousted from the band by the time of his death. Another early Ubu member, Tim Wright, went to New York City to play with the “no wave” band, DNA, which also featured stalwart New York artizens Arto Lindsay and Ikue Mori; that group was captured on the much discussed and critiqued (but rarely heard or played) No New York compilation, produced by Brian Eno. Ubu’s membership has evolved over the years, including such amazing players as Mayo Thompson (Red Krayola), Chris Cutler (Henry Cow, Art Bears), Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Frank Black, The Residents), Anton Fier (Feelies, Golden Palominos), Tony Maimone (They Might Be Giants), Jim Jones (every other legendary Cleveland band) and Tom Herman (Tripod Jimmy), among others. The sole musical constant throughout their life cycle has been David Thomas (once known as Crocus Behemoth), although producer Ken Hamann and designer John Thompson have also played longstanding and important roles in Pere Ubu’s sound and look. Ubu were pioneers in the indie single market: their two landmark releases, “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Final Solution” were issued on Thomas’ Hearthan label, long before such practices moved into battery of standard underground routines and rituals. They also pioneered the use of synthesizers in non-traditional modes, as Allen Ravenstine, Dave Taylor and Robert Wheeler have used their electronics not to mimic strings or horns or organs, but to create strange washes of machine sounds, adding an element of dissociation and industry to the musical soundscape. I note from the Ubu Projex page that Pere Ubu will be playing in New York this summer with a line-up including Thomas, Maimone, Wheeler, Cutler and ’90s/’00s bassist/guitarist Michele Temple, an interesting and intriguing mix of players from a variety of Ubu eras. Their history, and the continuing promise of interesting projects like the one in July, leads me to offer them strong endorsement as . . . The Greater Band: Pere Ubu.

Swans vs. Killdozer: Swans’ 1983 debut album, Filth, is one of the most caustic and numbing records ever pressed to vinyl, with a pair of drummers (Jonathan Kane and Roli Mossiman), a pair of bassists (Harry Crosby and Michael Gira) and a lone guitarist (Norman Westberg) hammering home relentless, grinding rhythms in synch with Gira’s relentless, grinding vocals. By 1987’s Children of God, the group had expanded its creative palette to include female vocals and keyboards (courtesy Gira’s longtime life and musical partner, Jarboe) and to mix up the sound dynamic a bit, letting softer (though no less scary) music creep onto the records, thereby making the thunderblasts sound all that much more powerful when they struck. After a misguided step into pop accessibility with 1989’s The Burning World and related singles, Swans reconfigured around the Gira-Jarboe core with floating rhythm sections, and guitars being provided by either Westberg or Clinton Steele; the sound got richer, deeper and more varied, and the lyrical concerns began to take on elements of hope, faith or transcendence, even though grim, repetitious mortality remained at the heart of their world view. 1995’s The Great Annihilator was a benchmark of sorts, the place where all the earlier elements finally all clicked, with Gira and Jarboe working with both Westberg and Steele, and with the group’s best rhythm section (Ted Parsons and Algis Kizys) also being supplemented with former Ministry-man Bill Rieflin. It stands as a titanic document of creativity and energy. Their final major studio release, Soundtracks for the Blind, was a bit more of a hodge podge, with new and reinvented material from a variety of line-ups filling two full compact discs with nearly symphonic soundscapes and textures, still retaining the inherent power and majesty of their best work. The evolution from Filth to Soundtracks was one of the most provocative and rewarding in the history of rock music, and it was a thrill, as a listener, to go along with them on the ride. And at this point I pause and say “hmmmmm,” . . . . because when I started typing, I was thinking that I was going to pick Killdozer to take this competition. They offered powerful rock and roll, thoughtful lyrics, fun covers and great production over their decade-long run, and I love their records and sound dearly, and consider it to be the template from which grunge emerged to conquer America (producer Butch Vig providing the important Wisconsin-to-Seattle link), but for sheer, long-standing accomplishment and provocation, I really can’t come up with a logical way to not acknowledge . . . The Greater Band: Swans.

Big Black vs. Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci: Big Black were Killdozer’s label mates on Touch and Go Records throughout their creative run. Like The Birthday Party, their violent, virulent music was often best appreciated in small doses, which may have contributed to the fact that the only released two full length records between 1983 and 1987, supplemented and complemented by seven singles and EPs (including covers of Wire’s “Heartbeat” and Kraftwerk’s “The Model”). Lyrically, Big Black may well be the most disturbing band of their (or any other) era: they didn’t glamorize or take cartoon-overkill looks at their topics of concern (off the top of my head and without looking at their discography, I can think of Big Black lyrics about cattle butchering, child molestation, gangland killings, immolation, mental illness and post-combat shock syndrome), but just laid the facts on the table, gave ’em a cold, calculating stare, and let you make of them what you would. It was terrible, yet compelling. You didn’t want to look or listen, but you couldn’t stop once you started, as the buzzing, screaming guitars and hyper-amped drum synthesizers reduced your frontal lobe to mush. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, on the other hand, almost couldn’t be more different in their sound, approach and lyrical content, making this a hard contest to judge, since it has such an apples-to-oranges flavor to it. As a counter to Big Black’s violence and abrasion, the Gorky’s offer pop music painted with swirling psychedelic, progressive and folk streaks, some sung in English, some in their native Welsh. Their arrangements are lush and creative, and some of their more ornate work can stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside the work of such revered geniuses as Brian Wilson or the Beatles. Formed around 1990, when its members were barely teenagers, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were already seasoned and sure when they released their early Welsh records, Tatay, Patio and Bwyd Time in 1994 and 1995. American perked up its ears, a little, and the U.S. Polygram compilation release Introducing Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci got some critical nods and attention State-side, but it was passing and ephemeral, and after the gorgeous Barafundle and haunting Gorky 5, Sony/Polygram lost interest in the band, leaving them to sign with important demi-indie Beggars Banquet. It was a better fit for them, and their first album with the new label, Spanish Dance Troupe, is one of their best, shifting their focus to a more pastoral, folk-based fare, probably spurred by the departure of founding guitarist John Lawrence, who had offered the lion’s share of the freak-out touches to their earlier music. Continuing in that vein, the Gorky’s have issued a series of lovely, beautifully crafted records, most recently 2003’s Sleep/Holiday, an intimate, atmospheric record that’s as comfortable and cozy as your favorite slippers (and I don’t mean that as an insult . . . it ain’t easy to make music that feels this good). The band currently features founders Euros Childs (vocals-keys), Megan Childs (violin) and Richard James (bass), supplemented with relative newcomers Peter Richardson (drums) and Rhodri Puw (guitar), and their consistently excellent recordings, continuing growth and bright prospects lead me to think that I’m gonna pick the sweet over the sour here, which I suppose has to be viewed as an upset, given the long shadow that Big Black has thrown over contemporary music in the ’90s and ’00s. As much as I’d like Touch & Go Records to have a representative in the final four, I think I’m gonna have to let Big Black join Killdozer on the bench, and declare . . . The Greater Band: Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.

And there we have it, the Final Four for tomorrow’s Round Robin Championship. To recap, our survivors are:

The Residents
Pere Ubu
Swans
Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci

An interesting, good mix, covering a broad and deep spectrum of music, with three of the four finalists still ongoing concerns, although the youngest of them is a 15 year old band at this point. That’s good, I think, a better balance than I managed to achieve in the final four of the “The Worst Rock Band Ever” competition.

The rules for tomorrow . . .

There will be six “mini-contests” with each band going up against the other (yes, there are only six pairs, since “Swans vs. Ubu” is the same thing as “Ubu vs. Swans”). The winner of each pair will get two points, the loser no points. Ties are allowed in the round robin, in which case each band gets one point. The band with the most points at the end of the round robin will be declared “Rock’s Greatest Secret Band” with a J. Eric Smith seal of approval and authenticity. Then I’ll get back to writing poetry.

Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands (Part Seven, and Out . . . )

So today’s the day: we started with 64 Secret Bands (actually, a good deal more than 64, if you track the evolution of the starting list through its various reader-participation permutations), today we have four left, and by the time I finish typing today, we will have the final one: Rock’s Greatest Secret Band.

Our finalists are (linked to their official home pages, if you’d like to either learn more about them or acquire some of their music, both of which are worthy pursuits):

The Residents
Pere Ubu
Swans
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci

Some overview points . . .

All but Swans are still making music together. The Residents have been doing so since the early ’70s, Ubu since the mid-’70s. Swans were an ongoing concern for 13 years in the ’80s and ’90s. Gorky’s have been making music together since around 1990. Geographically, the cover a broad swatch: the Residents are based in San Francisco, but hail originally from Louisiana. Pere Ubu are quintessentially a Cleveland band, with later connections in the U.K. as well. Swans were bred in New York’s Lower East Side, and later relocated to Georgia. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci hail from Wales. The Residents are the most prolific of the lot, record-wise, the Gorky’s the least prolific (although that’s more a function of their relative youth, compared to the others, than it is a function of infrequent visits to the studio).

All four bands make extraordinary music, and I’d be comfortable with anyone of them being named Rock’s Greatest Secret Band. (And I should note here that if you’re reading this conclusion without having read the opening, it’s important to go back and check the ground rules before writing to carp, please and thanks).

But the object of this little exercise was to pick one band, and that’s what we’re gonna do today. The rules for today (cut and pasted from yesterday): there will be six “mini-contests” with each band going up against the other (yes, there are only six pairs, since “Swans vs. Ubu” is the same thing as “Ubu vs. Swans”). The winner of each pair will get two points, the loser no points. Ties are allowed in the round robin, in which case each band gets one point. The band with the most points at the end of the round robin will be declared “Rock’s Greatest Secret Band” with a J. Eric Smith seal of approval and authenticity.

The blurbs will be shorter today: I’ve covered each band pretty extensively over the past week, so I’m not going to recover the same ground again. I encourage you to visit their websites for more information, regardless of who emerges on top today.

Ready? Me too! Here we go . . .

The Residents vs. Pere Ubu: Two of America’s most influential and distinctive avant-rockers, with Ubu leaning a bit more toward the rock end of the spectrum and the Residents leaning a bit more to the avant side. Both bands feature vocalists who are immediately recognizable, and may take a little bit of getting used to if you’ve never heard them before: Ubu’s David Thomas speak-sings in a lilting tenor warble, The Singing Resident (whose name has never been officially disclosed) sing-speaks in a baritone with a thick Louisiana accent. Both were electronic pioneers, both pioneered independent record releases, both have long and distinguished careers, and are making great music deep into their careers. We call this one . . . at tie. One point for Pere Ubu. One point for the Residents.

The Residents vs. Swans: Where the Residents are ethereal, Swans were visceral. Where the Residents are cerebral, Swans were even more visceral. Where the Residents are mysterious, Swans lived out their musical lives in the public domain. Where the Residents were less a band, on some plane, than a performance art collective that made amazing music with incredible stage and screen visuals, Swans were very much a live beast, despite regular and recurring personnel changes. The Residents deconstructed early rock and roll to make it fit their own vision. The Swans earliest recordings came from a place that hadn’t been documented before, and didn’t really have any precursors of note, besides the short-lived (but over-hyped) No Wave New York bands. All of the No Wavers flamed out quickly, because they played from a creative pigeon-hole that all but guaranteed limited futures for their deliberately off-putting music. For Swans to have grown from that limited (yet powerful and provocative) foundation into a band that could make haunting, potent and (sometimes) even sweet music gives them the edge here by a nose. Two points for Swans. No points for the Residents.

The Residents vs. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci: The Gorky’s are a talented and very, very promising and unique contemporary pop band, but their relative youth and limited number of releases (compared to the very prolific Residents) makes it hard for them to compete here. The one thing that could have pushed them over the top was the richness, complexity and distinctiveness of their musical arrangements, but of the four finalists, the Residents are the only one that can easily match and top them in that department. Age and secrecy trumps youth and openness here, I guess. Two points for The Residents. No points for Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci

Pere Ubu vs. Swans: A tough one . . . two great live bands who also make great records. Two bands whose members are (or were) very much in the public domain, foibles and failings right alongside triumphs and successes, unlike the Residents, who kept their personas hidden to put the focus squarely on their music . . . which makes things harder for them, on one plane (obviously), but easier on another, since no one’s interviewing, misquoting or misrepresenting them as human beings, the way that Ubu and Swans have been interviewed, misquoted or misrepresented over the years (sometimes by me, even). I’m gonna lean the New York way here, I think, just because the intensity of Swans’ music (live and in the studio) would have devoured most bands far quicker than the 13 years that it took Swans to run its course. There’s more breathing room in Ubu’s music and creative ethos, which is probably the reason why we can still enjoy them today, while Swans eventually self-immolated. I don’t normally buy into the standard rock idiom that you have suffer and (ideally) die for your art, but I think the creative intensity of Swans work resonates more deeply because it does come from such a gut-wrenching place, without some of the whimsy that leavens and lightens Ubu’s load. This is probably the hardest choice I’ve made in this entire week-long critique, and it’s gut driven as much as it’s head driven. But, having said that . . . Two points for Swans. No points for Pere Ubu.


Pere Ubu vs. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci:
Another case where a venerable (and ongoing) canon is overwhelmingly larger, deeper and greater than what any younger band, even one as accomplished as Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, could hope to achieve at this stage of their career. I’m glad to have a relative newcomer like the Gorky’s in the final four, I believe in them and their music, but when it comes to Rock’s Greatest Secret Band, it’s hard not to pick a group that has flown beneath the radar for nearly 30 years without ever signing a major label deal than it is to pick a fifteen-year old group who managed to get a few records out with Sony and Polygram’s marketing clout behind them. Two points for Pere Ubu. No points for Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci.

Swans vs. Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci: This one’s a wee bit more apples-to-apples for the Gorky’s . . . they’ve been around 15 years or so, Swans lasted only 13. But in the same ways that the Residents began by reinventing classic rock in their own mold, Gorky’s began by reinventing classic psychedelia and prog in theirs. It’s easier to find influences and connections for the Gorky’s than it is for Swans, who seemed to emerge full grown from the head of some dark musical god, screaming. Gorky’s evolved from a progressive/psychedelic rock band to a pastoral pop band. There are a lot of other bands hoeing those same rows, though few of them do it as effectively as the Gorky’s do. Swans evolved from an ugly musical cancer to a beautiful musical cancer, and I can’t think of a single other band who managed that progression, or who could ever be confused with them. Two points for Swans. No points for Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci.

And that’s that . . . with the Round Robin tally as follows:

The Residents: Three points.
Pere Ubu: Three points.
Swans: Six points.
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci: No points.

Which means, with a sigh of relief and accomplishment, that I hereby declare and decree . . . .

SWANS ARE ROCK’S GREATEST SECRET BAND!

Which, honestly, surprises me as much as it probably surprises you. When I looked at the original list of 64 without doing the head-to-head stuff, the bands that I probably would have picked, without doing the head-to-head analysis would have been Wire, Can, The Birthday Party and/or Killdozer. As I go back and review the prior rounds, there were two examples (Swans vs. Shriekback and Swans vs. Killdozer) where my opening gut reaction was to pick against Swans, but after laying out the case, I went their way instead.

It may sound weird to say that I don’t know where this thing is going stage to stage, but I really don’t . . . my modus operandi is to write very, very quickly, stating the case, then see if the case matches my original gut inclination. When it doesn’t, the written case trumps the gut. But when all’s said and done, and I sit back and look at the complete (and very long) product . . . I feel that I made good cases and that the final results are satisfying on both a gut and a brain basis. I can logically justify picking Swans . . . and I can feel in my gut that Swans are a good choice.

Getting to that point makes a week’s worth of frenzied typing worth it for me.

I hope it’s been worth your time to go along on the exercise with me.

Sometime in the next couple of days, I will flip this thing around so it reads from beginning to end, not end to beginning, and post it to its own page, like the Worst Bands competition. At that point, I will also spell and grammar check the whole thing: the one downside of writing as quickly as I do and then immediately posting projects like these is that they do get filled with fractured English and numerous mis-spellings. Hopefully it was legible enough to follow . . . the archival version of this will be better in that regard.

Thanks again to all those who wrote to offer ideas, insights and critiques. I was open-minded to all of them, and they helped hone the original list into a better document, and gave me some interesting data points and impressions throughout the week’s writing.

If there’s any interest, I might do another one of these in three months or so. If you have suggestions for what other musical competition we might host here, shoot ’em my way and I’ll see what strikes my fancy.

And on that note . . . back to the poetry project.

Tomorrow.

Today, I rest.

Or, uh, not . . . I think today I actually work in the garden.

But at least that doesn’t involve typing.

7 thoughts on “Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands

  1. I don’t follow your logic at all, though I enjoyed reading through some of it… however, I must admit; your methods, though possibly unsound, have led directly to the correct conclusion. Swans are the greatest secret band of all time.

  2. It would seem that I love The Burning World as much as you hate it…

    [I think this may have actually been the article that introduced me to Felt, back in the day. The double-reissue of Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty/Splendour of Fear still gets major airplay at Goat Central.]

  3. Pingback: PfB 450: Desert Island Disc: Introduction | Popcorn for Breakfast

  4. It’s amazing to think back to the time that this was written, around when I was first getting into Swans as a middle-schooler—no, seriously! I was a weird kid—and to flash forward to the present, after a remarkably well-received reformation and some spectacular new albums, and to realise that this band which was once my own treasured secret is now a kind of icon of the underground in the same way that Sonic Youth once were.

    Maybe the climate is too different for this now, but some part of me wants to revive this idea and populate it with a list entirely of omissions from this list, then come to my own conclusions. It wouldn’t be difficult to begin, although the choices could be quite difficult indeed. Wish me luck, mayhap…?

    • Right on! I was a Swans devotee from “Filth” on (though I was a wee bit older than middle school then!) . . . so I would love to see someone tackle something like this all these years on. Keep me posted if you do it!

      Interestingly enough, I haven’t really been a big fan of albums issued by the reformed band. I am glad that MG is getting the props and respects he deserves, but somehow this incarnation doesn’t speak to me as much as earlier ones did, even though I also admire the talent and acumen of all the players in the group. I actually listen mostly to the “Filth” –> “Holy Money” era stuff these days, not even playing Jarboe era much.

      We age weirdly, I guess!

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