Who They Were: A relatively short-lived band from Boston, active from 1978 to 1982, with an extraordinary line-up: a standard bass-guitar-drum instrumental section fronted by four (!) singers. The group’s roots trace back to the mid-’70s, when vocalist Casey Cameron formed a kazoo orchestra with friend Larry Bangor, Larry’s brother Dini Lamot, and Dini’s partner Windle Davis, all of whom also sang. After morphing into a busking country-western ensemble called Honey Bea and the Meadow Muffins, the four vocalists decided to form a rock band, adding guitarist Rick Gilbert, drummer Travis Malcolm, and bassist Rolfe Anderson (later replaced by Chris MacLachlan); the group named itself after the seminal (heh heh, heh) 1966 book by William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Human Sexual Response have the smallest catalog of any of the artists that I’m covering in this series, with but two albums (1980’s Fig. 14, and 1981’s In A Roman Mood) and a couple of attendant singles issued during their active days. (Their debut album was later reissued as Fig. 15 with the addition of a notorious single that they once played live on a Boston public access television show, to much local chagrin and notoriety). The group split in 1982, though Bangor, Travis, Gilbert and MacLachlan continued on together as The Zulus, issuing a pair of more-conventional post-punk albums. Travis then joined Bob Mould’s Sugar, Gilbert emerged as an ace and in-demand session guitarist, and Lamot forged a successful drag career as Musty Chiffon. While the group’s catalog is small, the couple of dozen songs they recorded in the studio have long been essential listening for me, and I was tickled when a live concert film, Unba Unba, was released some years back. It’s a great watch, highly recommended.
When I First Heard Them: Their sole demi-hit, the Casey Cameron-sung “Jackie Onassis,” was getting regular spins on the radio when I moved to Newport, Rhode Island in 1980. I liked (and like) it a lot, as a fine bit of satirical musical social commentary, but it was the second song of theirs that I heard that really cemented my love for them. I can still distinctly remember sitting in my bedroom listening to WBRU out of Providence, Rhode Island, and having my mind blown when “What Does Sex Mean To Me?” spun on the air, its lyrics provocative and surreal, its vocals and instrumental performances catchy and energetic. I was actually surprised (but pleased) to learn that “What Does Sex . . .” was performed by the same band as “Jackie Onassis,” since Larry Bangor’s lead vocals on that second song were significantly different from Cameron’s. I nabbed their debut album soon thereafter, and scored their sophomore (and final) album upon its release. I also got to see them live, once, at Harpo’s (the local music club at the time) in Newport, and it was an utterly amazing show. I made a cassette of their two records sometime soon after that show, one album on each side, and I listened to them that way for literally decades, as Fig. 15 was hard to find in early CD-era days, and I’m not sure that In A Roman Mood was ever widely available on shiny silver disc. It was a treat when both records eventually emerged as digital downloads, and it was revelatory to hear them clearly that way, after years and years of playing a worn-down tape that captured the original pops and clicks and hisses of my old vinyl copies of their records.
Why I Love Them: Their unusual four-part vocals, with different lead singers on different songs, or even portions thereof, were complex and sublime, and the instrumental trio were simply world-class in their songwriting and performance skills. The group’s lyrics were highly literate, addressing topics not normally tackled by rock groups, then or now, and they did whatever they did with an absolutely ingratiating enthusiam and joy, making even their topically-darker or musically-slower songs soar with heart-warming energy. Several group members were also openly and proudly queer, camp, and out at a time when that was most definitely not the norm, even in nominally tolerant indie/alternative rock circles, and that made them seem fearless and bold in ways that few other artists of the era could touch. And if their technical chops, fiery on-stage capabilities, and strong songwriting talents weren’t enough, they also ultimately managed to create and craft a collection of songs that are simply riddled with singalong melodies of the most ear-worm variety, allowing engaged listeners to experience their smart words in ways that stick in the skull like soft taffy, sweet, chewy, multi-flavored, addictive. Just an absolutely dynamic and original ensemble, memorable for all the right reasons, notable for not overstaying their welcome, admirable for the boldness and bravery of what they did, and when they did it. I normally only cite studio versions of songs in my lists in this series, but I’ve injected a few live clips below, as I think you need to see them in action to fully appreciate why I love them so much.
#10. “Dick and Jane,” from Fig. 14 (1980)
#9. “Public Alley 909,” from In A Roman Mood (1981)
#8. “Unba Unba,” from Fig. 14 (1980)
#7. “12345678910,” from In A Roman Mood (1981)
#6. “Marone Offering,” from In A Roman Mood (1981)
#5. “Pound,” from In A Roman Mood (1981)
#4. “Marone Moan,” from Fig. 14 (1980)
#3. “What Does Sex Mean To Me?” from Fig. 14 (1980)
#2. “Land of the Glass Pinecones,” from In A Roman Mood (1981)
#1. “Andy Fell,” from In A Roman Mood (1981)