Friday, December 19, 2014

Music For the Jilted Generation: The Rise of Electronica in the 90's

Prodigy circa 1997

I was born in the summer of love, May 1967, to parents barely out of their teens, so rock music has been the soundtrack to my entire life, but there was a time in the early/mid 90’s when I walked away from rock.  Ironically, this occurred exactly at the time when “my” side of the rock divide had “won”, i.e., when the grunge and alternative movements hastened the demise of the detestable trifle known as hair metal.  Anyone who has read any of my other posts knows that there are precious few genres of music, and of rock music in particular, that I DON’T like, but hair metal is indeed one of those genres.  One of the things I hated most about late 80’s hair metal was how unoriginal and homogeneous it was, especially compared to the new wave musical movement that immediately preceded it.  New wave was all about having your own unique look, sound, and band name, and extremely few new wave acts looked or sounded that similar.  Hair metal, in contrast, seemed to be all about imitating exactly the look and sound of the bands that had already made it.  So nearly every hair metal band had long, hairsprayed hair, spandex a la David Lee Roth, and/or leather and studs in the manner of Rob Halford of Judas Priest.  And every group put out a watered down version of the hard rock/blues of the New York Dolls augmented with as much Jimmy Page-style guitar pyrotechnics as they could cram in.  Moreover, every album had the same tiresome lyrics obsessed with “partying” and poontang, but of course they also always had that one ballad to show off their tender side.  Watching MTV during this time was a tedious parade of videos showcasing these pretty boys prancing around a giant stage while girls in ripped acid wash jeans screamed and/or gyrated, and there was a bewildering onslaught of groups—Poison, Ratt, Warrant, Winger, Whitesnake, White Lion, Firehouse, Bang Tango, Dangerous Toys, and on and on. 
            And then, in 1990, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and other “grunge” bands from the Pacific Northwest climbed out of the clubs and took the charts by storm.  Grunge combined the rawness of the early hardcore bands like Black Flag with the slower, heavier, longer sound of 70’s metal pioneers like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.  Flag themselves were one of the first to lead this charge, starting with albums like Loose Nut and Slip It In, which showcased their increasing interest in pre-punk 70’s rock forebearers. 
            At the same time that grunge was capturing the ears of Middle American teens, “alternative” was also gathering interest.  Alternative music grew out of punk and new wave and what was also called “college music” or “independent” or “indie” music in the mid to late 80’s.  First-wave English new wave groups like Depeche Mode, the Cure, and the Smiths/Morrissey had been gathering popularity throughout the 80’s to the point where they were filling arenas by the end of the decade, while groups like Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, and R.E.M. moved from small independent American labels to the majors.  All of a sudden, the music you used to only be able to hear on college radio and see in small smoky clubs and read about in zines like Flipside was everywhere.

            This is exactly when I started to become disenchanted with, even disinterested in, rock music.  By 1990 I’d been passionately involved in punk and new wave for almost a decade, and while I was overjoyed to see hair metal swept aside like the insignificant piffle that it was, I wasn’t super excited by what replaced it either, for several reasons.  First and foremost, even by the late 80’s I was becoming bored with loud, angry music; indeed, as I have gone on about in prior posts, by 1989 my favorite band in the world was the 70’s glitter rock-influenced band Celebrity Skin, who’s silly, feel-good music, outrageous costumery and zany stage antics made them incredibly entertaining live, unlike most super-serious grunge and alternative acts.  But Celebrity Skin broke up in early 1991 (a few days after the death of Freddie Mercury, appropriately enough) and that was a major blow to my desire to see new bands or hear new music.  My then-girlfriend/now-wife and I had spent much of the previous three years religiously following the Skinners and their stablemates on Triple X Records such as the Ultras, Pygmy Love Circus, the Miracle Workers, and Liquid Jesus, through LA’s circuit of small clubs, but with Skin broken up, this lost much of its meaning for both of us.  The only other band that came even remotely close to capturing the entertainingly flamboyant nature of Celebrity Skin was Jane’s Addiction, but by the early 90’s they were awash in drug abuse and similarly self-indulgent rock star occupations.  We saw Jane’s A one last time, at the Universal Amphitheater, in 1992, and went away disillusioned with how far they’d fallen from their exciting, revolutionary beginnings.  We were in our mid-20’s then but felt more like 100 next to all the teeny boppers with their dreadlocks and nose rings in perfect imitation of their hero Perry.
            Another problem I had with grunge music was how macho it was.  Much of it was loud, heavy, slow, and the bands who created it seemed to revel in the post-hardcore machismo of the mosh pit.  Unlike Celebrity Skin’s concerts, which were filled with gorgeous, tall, skinny punky model types in vintage 70’s Halston minidresses and platform shoes, you rarely saw women at most grunge shows, which seemed filled instead mostly with the same manly meatheads who a couple years before were holding their lighters aloft during Whitesnake’s encore.  I wasn’t then, nor am I now, much of a fan of anything particularly testosterone-laden, so that too turned me off in a big way from grunge.
            And while part of me was happy to see bands I’d formerly liked such as Sonic Youth, the Meat Puppets, and Camper Van Beethoven sign on to major labels and release records, none of these albums ever captured my interest the way their earlier work did.  Sonic Youth is a particularly good example; quite honestly, I haven’t particularly liked anything they’ve done since Evol.  I didn’t even like Daydream Nation!!!!
            As the early 90’s unfolded I became less and less interested in where traditional rock music was going.  In part for the reasons above, and in part because in 1995 my girlfriend finished her Ph.D. in Los Angeles and moved to Columbus Ohio to do postdoctoral research, I was going out to see bands only rarely.  Also, I was focused on trying to finish up my own Ph.D. and move to Ann Arbor where I had a postdoc set up and which was as close as I could get to Columbus.  That year I worked incessantly, seven days a week and was often out of town running additional experiments up at the NASA-Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.  On the rare occasions that I was in town and not working, I would usually just go to Harvelle’s, the legendary blues club in Santa Monica, or I would go out with my buddy and then-roommate Gil to clubs like Young Moguls and watch old flicks and drink beer. 

            My final year in Los Angeles, 1996, I bought on a whim an album that set me at least temporarily onto a slightly different path.  The album was 1991’s Lust by the Lords of Acid.  I’d been sort of keeping an eye on electronic music for a while; I’d been a huge fan of first-run synth bands like Depeche Mode and early Pet Shop Boys since 1983, but had lost interest in that music in the mid-80’s as I’d gotten more interested in hardcore punk and hard rock like AC/DC.  I knew vaguely that some bands, particularly in Europe, were producing an entire culture centered around electronic dance music, but had never seen any of these bands live nor had I really heard much of that music.  I bought the Lords of Acid album mostly because I thought their name sounded cool; I wasn’t then and am not now much of a druggie but I had to admire a band that came right out and glorified hallucinogen use right in their name! 
            Listening to this album now is almost embarrassing; while Lords of Acid would evolve into a band of loud, brutal energy, this album sounds really cheesy and dated.  The synths sound really simplistic, like cheap Casios and the beats are pretty simplistic.  And almost every song is about sex—“Rough Sex”, “I Sit On Acid”, “Pump My Body To The Top”, “I Must Increase My Bust”, etc.    Their later work developed more of a rock edge, and songs like “Drink My Honey”, “Mister Machoman”, “Do What You Wanna Do”, the incomparable “The Crab Louse” and the title track off 1994’s Voodoo-U, and “Slave To Love”, “Rover Take Over”, “Loverboy Lovergirl”, and “I Like It” off 1997’s Farstucker had a much harder edge, almost approaching the violent industrial metal of bands like White Zombie.
            But at the time listening to this album was a revelation.  This was a whole new genre of music that I hadn’t ever explored, and as always this was very tempting to me.  I was particularly fascinated by the loud, grinding, chiming synths of songs like “Rough Sex”, which very much reminded me of the rawness and stridency of punk. 

            In June of 1996 I moved to Ann Arbor to start a postdoctoral research position studying gene therapy in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Michigan Medical School.  At the time I was obsessed with learning some of the techniques of the still-somewhat-new field of molecular biology.  Splicing genes, growing cells in a dish, and creating and studying genetically engineered animals were my focus, and because these all seemed so futuristic, I was extremely obsessed with anything that seemed forward looking.  It was around this time that I discovered Wired magazine, with its focus on emerging technology and how it would change our lives, and became a devoted reader (I still enjoy it today).  I also started reading speculative fiction books and short stories that centered on plausible science fiction.
            So it seemed only natural to also seek out music that wasn’t a throwback like most rock was but that was also similarly forward focused.  I still remember that for Christmas 1996 my then-girlfriend and I went skiing with her family in Lake Tahoe, and on the drive up to Incline Village from Long Beach I listened incessantly to a new electronica compilation CD I’d bought just before leaving Ann Arbor called Wipeout XL.  Even more than Lust, this CD really sucked me into the burgeoning electronica movement.  Wipeout XL was the soundtrack to a video game, which in itself was a pretty novel concept at the time.  It contained some of the best electronica tracks of the mid-90’s, including “We Have Explosive” by another group with a terrific name, The Future Sound of London.  With it’s heavy, syncopated breakbeat, robotic vocals, dub echo, guitar-like blasts, and especially the atonal electronic noise that anchors the entire song, it was so incredibly different from most rock music.  And yet, it also wasn’t.  Mostly what it seemed like to me was a deconstruction of a typical rock song, a taking apart of the basic elements of rock music—guitar licks, beats, bursts of lyrics—and reconstructing them into something altogether different.  The second song, “Atom Bomb”, by Fluke, had a similarly atonal, deconstructed manner as well that I also loved.  My favorite, however, was the instrumental version of “Firestarter” by the Prodigy, with its squalling electronic feedback sample overlying what in essence was a traditional rock song, albeit with a much heavier beat.  These bands seemed to be trying to cross the divide between hard/pure electronic music on the one hand, and traditional rock music on the other, and while I also liked other, more traditional electronic songs on this album (like “Petrol” by Orbital and “Afro Ride” by Leftfield), I was most attracted to these heavier, more rock-influenced electronica acts.
            My love of the song by Prodigy led me to explore this band’s output.  I quickly learned that this band had a rich history of work, mostly singles, stretching back to the start of the 90’s.  Their earlier stuff was much more straightforward electronic dance music at the heart of English rave culture—repetitive, long, and very very electronic.  But starting in 1995 their music expanded beyond these simple beginnings and became much more compelling, at least to me.  1995’s Music For the Jilted Generation was a tremendous step forward, while at the same time it was still anchored in the long drugged out songs of their past, like the eight-plus minute “Break & Enter” and “The Heat (The Energy)”.  But songs like the galloping, grinding “Voodoo People” and the squawking “Their Law”, with its heavy breakbeat, were pointing toward a new synthesis of rock and electronic music.
            But it was a single from this album that really blew me away.  At some point early in 1997 I bought a CD single of “Poison”, and this really floored me.  This is still to this day one of the funkiest, most danceable songs I have ever heard; when Liam Hewlett drops in the hyperfuzzed bass line and super heavy breakbeat, after the pulsing droning throb of the intro, it sounds like hip hop from the distant future.  The multiple vocal samples and the coursing, competing synth blasts give this song a wild, textured feel.  This remains to this day one of my favorite songs, electronic or otherwise, of all time. 
            Prodigy of course would go on to significant fame and success, although they never made it as big as people predicted because of the inevitable backlash against electronica that started in the early 2000’s.  But their album Fat of the Land was a total triumph in my opinion.  From the opening panzer-like bass rumble and breakbeat blast of “Smack My Bitch Up” onward, this was music that grabbed you by the throat and never let go.  The ominous, almost creepy “Breathe” is another standout, as is the lurching hip hop of “Diesel Power”.  “Funky Shit” harkens back to their rave beginnings, pulsing and oscillating in pure dance mode.  “Serial Thrilla” merges metal guitar with big beats and Keith Flint’s punky, snotty vocals, while “Mindfields” is another eerie, slowly building electronic masterpiece.  “Narayan” has a freaky, Indian/psychedelic feel, especially the break, with it’s ominously chanted vocals, and it eventually swirls into their smash hit “Firestarter”.  Start to stop this is one of the very best, most complete albums of the 90’s of any genre, with no real weaknesses anywhere. 

            After this I sought out as many electronica albums as I could find.  One of my next purchases, because I’d by now read so much about it, was the Chemical Brothers’ 1994 release Exit Planet Dust.  From the funky, soulful beginning of the very first song, “Leave Home”, this album had me hooked.  And indeed, one of the things I enjoyed about electronica then and still respect now is how album-oriented it was.  This was clearly intended by the Chemical Bros to be played as one long groove; you could put this on and just leave it on for the entire party, and each song melds into the next without ever letting the energy sag.  I also loved the super scratching on “In Dust We Trust”; these guys had clearly been listening to a LOT of American rap music from the 80’s and were doing their part to push the art of turntabling to the next level.  But it was the next two songs, “Song to the Siren” and “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”, that just blew me away.  “Siren”, with its Indian-sounding samples layered over a dense mat of beats, samples, and sounds was, and is, an amazingly complex and fascinating song.  But by far my favorite song was “Birdies”, with its staccato beat that emerges from “Song to the Siren” along with a blasting, airhorn-like synth line, which merges with two other wild, flailing synth lines, that builds this song up from a simple beginning into something that is raucous and strident, and yet somehow still danceable at the same time.  Again, I was struck by how they could take sound effects that individually were strident and unpleasant and by layering them together over infectious beats could create music that was totally enjoyable and, as mentioned, still super danceable.  This too is one of my favorite songs to this day.
            But in addition to their wildly rocking side, the Chemical Brothers also had their mellow side.  Much of the rest of Planet Dust demonstrates this. “Chico’s Groove” is spacy, sounding like something off the soundtrack for a “2001:  A Space Odyssey” type science fiction movie.  “One Too Many Mornings” pulsates and soars, while “Life Is Sweet” explores hippie psychedelia.  “Playground of a Wedgeless Form” has a buzzy throb and strange guitar-plucking samples/sounds placed over a big, heavy beat.   But it was their collaboration with folk singer Beth Orton that ends the album, “Alive Alone”, that also garnered some favorable attention.  Orton’s clear, sweet voice fit strangely well over the Brothers’ pulsing, funky maelstrom of sound.  This too is a terrific song that has aged incredibly well.
            I have enjoyed every Chemical Brothers album since this, but to me this was always their very best work.  In particular, I like “Block Rockin’ Beats”, the incomparably funky “Piku”, and Beth Orton’s dreamy “Where Do I Begin” off Dig Your Own Hole;  the trippy “Sunshine Underground”, the funky “Orange Wedge”, and the swirling “Asleep from Day” off Surrender; “The State We’re In” from Come with Us, and “Come With Us” from Chemical Four.

            Another compilation album I purchased around this time (mid 1997) was Deconstruction Presents.  This is a hybrid collection of some of the best DJ/electronica music created in the 90’s.  Much of this CD consists of house music, the less rock-y, more purely dance style of music that had taken clubs by storm in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and while that isn’t my favorite type of electronic music, there are some phenomenal tracks in this vein, including the sweet, trippy “The Gift” by Way Out West and Miss Joanna Law, and Sasha & Maria’s breathy “Be As
one”, “Anthem” by N-Joi, which samples lyrics from Gwen Guthrie’s song “Peanut Butter” and “I Found Love” by Darlene Davis.  The best house songs here in my opinion though are the two De’Lacy songs, the mid-tempo herky-jerky“Hideaway” and the smooth as butter “That Look”, both of which feature the incomparable Rainie Lassiter on vocals.  “Everybody Everybody” by Black Box has the pounding piano and smooth vocals of classic disco, while “I’m Rushin’” is a little funkier but has the same diva vocals. 
            But to me one of the strangest and most interesting dance songs of all time is “Swamp Thing” by The Grid.  A strange amalgam of southern banjo, blasts of synth, and driving beats, this is unlike anything I’ve ever heard since.  Few bands have attempted a modern take on square dance music, but this is as close as it comes to that.  Fantastic.
            Another song that really grabbed my attention on this album was the leadoff track, “Landslide” by Harmonix.  No, this isn’t a remake of the Stevie Nicks classic, it is essentially a raved-up remix of “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2, and it is one of the most beautiful, optimistic, joyful songs ever recorded. 
            In terms of more breakbeat oriented electronica, this album contains the utterly fantastic “Dirt” by Death In Vegas. Very much cut from the same cloth as the Chemical Brothers’ Exit Planet Dust songs, this one consists of a mashup of huge heavy beats, surging synth lines, heavy throbbing bass lines, and strange vocal samples.  A couple years or two later I also acquired a few songs from their album Scorpio Rising, including “23 Lies”, the guitar-based “Leather”, and “Scorpic Rising”, which features Liam Gallagher of Oasis on vocals.  But my favorite Death in Vegas song, and a song I still love to hear on my workout playlist, is “Song For Penny” off the Lost in Space Soundtrack.   I love the rising and falling alarm-like sample that begins it, and the roaring, feeding back guitars layered over the dense, galloping drums.  This is pure punk rock, again taken apart and then re-constructed as a danceable but still loud and raw song.  I absolutely love this song.

Another album I bought around this time was one that has fallen off most people’s radar, Endorfun by LCD.  This is not the same band as LCD Soundsystem, but rather is two Swedish guys trying to create their country’s answer to the Chemical Brothers.  While not quite as rock influenced as the Chemical Bros, this album nevertheless flows along on a single continuous groove too and has many standout tracks, including the incredibly funky title track (which is very reminiscent of “Leave Home” by the Chemical Brothers); the slower but still funky “Elektronik”; “Gear Boxing”, which reminds me of “Song To the Siren”; “Cry Baby”; and the more purely electronic “Bank Robber”, “Suprime Weirdness”, and “Think Smart”.  This is a terrific album top to bottom and deserves to be recognized more for its quality.

            In addition to the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, two other bands rose out of the electronica movement of the mid/late 90’s to achieve a measure of success.  One of these was the Crystal Method from Las Vegas, one of the few American bands to break into this genre dominated by European acts.  Their 1997 album Vegas was a smash hit that yielded several hit singles, though the band also experienced a backlash when some of these songs were sold for commercial purposes and resulted in immediate over-exposure.  In particular, the song “Busy Child” was crafted from the exact same blueprint as the Chemical Brother’s “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”:  simple vocal samples and huge, heavy, driving breakbeat, over which strange buzzing, squawking, strident synth signatures were layered progressively to create a sound that by the end of the song is densely layered and almost harsh but still extremely danceable.  This song is another of my all-time favorites from this era and genre, though it did get a little over-exposed as it was used for a Gap ad later that year.
            Vegas is filled with excellent tracks like this, such as the leadoff song “Trip Like I Do”, built around the sampled vocals of a stoned young woman imploring someone that “I want you to trip like I do”; its surging intro, with a spoken word overdub and dense, atmospheric underpinning, ultimately blasts into a frenetic attack of beats and synth bass.  The pulsing, syncopated “Cherry Twist” and the spacy, guitar-riff centered “High Roller” are two other high points.  “Keep Hope Alive” is another standout; I purchased a maxi-CD-single of this that has some even better, trippier versions of this song, like the slower, dub-heavy Trip Hope mix and the Latin-tinged Dubeliscious Groove (Fly Spanish Version).  This is another album that really has no major weak spots; every song is pretty incredible.
            2001’s Tweekend was nearly as solid.  Starting with the huge, funky “PHD”, and continuing through the nearly-as-funky “Wild, Sweet, and Cool”, this album gets you up and dancing in a hurry.  “Roll It Up” and the melodic “Murder” are much like the songs on Vegas.  My favorite song on this album, though, is “Name of the Game”, with its fantastic vocal intro (“Attention all you motherfuckers!”) and pulsing bass and huge guitar riffs.
            I wasn’t as big a fan of 2004’s Legion of Boom; in some ways I saw it as a step backward.  Things didn’t pop and sizzle like they did on either of their first two albums and there wasn’t a standout track or two like there was on those two albums either.  “Starting Over” is decent, and I like the hip hop flavor of “The American Way”, and the trance-y “I Know It’s You” as well as the funky metal of “Weapons of Mass Distortion”, but otherwise am not a huge fan.

            The fourth huge band to come out of the 90’s electronica movement is of course Daft Punk, who last year won a Grammy for their work with Pharrell on their album Random Access Memories.  I haven’t really gotten into this album much because I’m still obsessed with their debut album, 1997’s Homework, which I consider to be one of the greatest albums ever.  An amazing amalgam of disco, house, hip hop, and big beat electronica, this is yet another electronica album you can just throw onto the CD player and leave playing till the end.  The distorted voice that begins “Daftendirekt”, that eventually resolves into the words “Da funk back to the punk c'mon”, gives a little indication of where this music is going to take you.  “Revolution 909” starts with party crowd noise, sirens, and traffic sounds over an insistent disco beat sample and just percolates suggestively for over five minutes but is one of the most danceable songs on earth.  This is disco stripped of everything else:  divas, even vocals, and all other instruments, but it shows just how potent that disco beat is.  “Da Funk” was a major hit single, and Spike Jonze even made a legendarily strange video for it featuring a man with a giant dog’s head walking around a New York neighborhood blasting the song from his ghetto blaster while he runs errands and meets friends.   This song too is insanely danceable, especially when the Punks drop the big beat around the 40 second mark.  This is a HUGE, bass heavy beat that throbs in your chest when you play it at even modest volume, the very distilled essence of funk.  A yowling synth line kicks in soon after, but the part of the song that really takes off is after the break, where a squeaky, scratching synth line kicks in and the beat drops back in.   This part of the song is just insanely fun to dance to; I once requested this in one of Ann Arbor’s surprisingly good dance clubs and the place went WILD.  My friend Gil once said this about Jane’s Addiction’s “Whores” but I think it applies here too:  “This makes me want to bang my head AND shake my ass at the same time!”
            “Phoenix” is another deconstructed disco song.  Starting with just a polyrhythmic beat, it eventually adds a chiming sample and scratching synth line and a meandering bass line.  Again it is amazing to me how simple but effective this music is, and how much you can take away from a typical disco song and still be left with something magical and danceable.
            “Phoenix” melds right into the next disco-house jam, “Fresh”.  To me another incredible aspect of this album is how Daft Punk build their songs across the length of the album.  “Revolution 909” is the simplest, “Phoenix” has a little more to it, and “Fresh” more still.  This song too follows a common pattern of several other songs on this album, starting from a single sonic element, progressively adding more elements to it, but then resolving back to simplicity.
            “Around the World” starts with a muted beat and, like “Fresh”, builds this initial sample up, eventually adding robotic “Around the World” vocals repeating before fading out.
            Another high point of the album for me is “Rollin’ and Scratchin’”, which begins with an insistent, almost irritating beat, and adds a progressively more atonal, screeching synth element and buzzing bass to it until the entire song is a cacophony of wildly frantic noise.   I also love how this song reaches a crescendo, drops back somewhat, but then comes back just as forcefully as ever before resolving back to the simple beat.  I once put Homework on at a friend’s party in Ann Arbor and by the midpoint of this song my beloved CD was forcefully ejected and I was banned evermore from touching the CD player!  This song is still hard to take for anyone not raised on strident, atonal music like I was. 
            “Teachers” is a funky run through a list of some of Daft Punk’s influences, including DJ Funk, Dr. Dre, George Clinton, Gemini, and Li’l Louis among many others, while “High Fidelity” has to be the only song in history to sample “Just the Way You Are” by Billy Joel, and only goes to show that these guys can make ANYTHING danceable. “Rock ‘n Roll” is another progressively building noise blast in the same vein as “Rollin’ and Scratchin’”, while “Oh Yeah” sounds like robot hip hop.  “Burnin’” and “Indo Silver Club” are solid but not especially memorable, but Daft Punk end on a strong note with “Alive”, a sussurating five minute dance groove that makes you just want to hit “start” all over again.

1997 seemed to be the year that electronica peaked, and after that it didn't really seem like there was much innovation.  But I definitely have liked some electronic music (which now is usually called electronic dance music or EDM) since then.  In the same vein as Daft Punk are Finland’s Ural 13 Diktators.  Songs like “Tonight”, “Techno Game”, and “Dream World” from their Disco Kings EP from 2001 are the same melding of beats, disco, and house that flavored Daft Punk’s Homework, as are “Still Alive”, “Victorious Night”, and the title song from 2003’s Raid Over Europe.    But my favorite song by them is the almost-terrifying “Laser Karaoke”, with its HUGE bass-beat throb and loud, ominous foreign shouting “LASER KARAOKE” vocals.  This song is another one that sends subliminal signals to your legs and ass to MOVE.
            Another weird European electronic band is Junkie XL aka Holland’s Tom Holkenborg, who split the difference between electronic dance music like the Chemical Brothers and digital hardcore in the vein of Alec Empire and Atari Teenage Riot.  A great example is “Underachievers”, from 1997’s Saturday Teenage Kick, which starts with a record skip and a few weird sound effects before dropping a beat and adding a few squealing and buzzing synth lines, but then busts into a full-blown punk-metal guitar blast and breakbeat before moving into Holkenborg’s rapid-fire rapping.  This is a great song combining all of the best aspects of modern music—dance, rap, metal/punk.  I especially like the scratching solo in the middle.  “Junkie Expanding Limits” evokes the Beastie Boys off Check Your Head, with its dense samples, heavy beats, and scratching, and of course because of the rapid-fire rapping. “Saturday Teenage Kick” is magnificent because it samples the guitar line from “Divide and Conquer” by Husker Du off Flip Your Wig, and crafts a really rocking but melodic song from it to boot.  One thing I’ve always loved in rap music is when it samples classic rock songs; Run DMC pretty obviously did this first with Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” (which technically isn’t a sample and is more of a remake), and the Beastie Boys plundered everyone from Zep to AC/DC to Deep Purple, and my favorite example of this is “She Watch Channel Zero?!” by Public Enemy, which famously samples “Angel of Death” by Slayer.    “Melange” is reminiscent to the buzzing, blasting breakbeat of Crystal Method.
Holkenborg followed up with 1999’s Big Sounds of the Drags, and the standout track here is “Action Radius”, with its swirling beginning that resolves into yet another gigantic blast of guitar riffage before dropping into a massive beat.  Holkenborg’s rapping is almost hectoring here, but the chorus is kind of big and sing-song-y.  “Check Your Basic Groove” and “Love Like Razorblade” are cut from the same cloth as Crystal Method’s “Keep Hope Alive”, while “Synasthesia” races along like “Fresh” by Daft Punk.  “Zerotonine” has a sweet strings sample and a milder rapping cadence, and “Legion” has a mellower acoustic vibe that sounds to me like some of the stuff Everlast did after he left House of Pain.

Another electronic band I like are Denmark’s Junior Senior.  The Michael Jackson sampling “Move Your Feet” is another gorgeous disco/electronic/dance mashup, as is “Go Junior, Go Senior”, both off 2001’s D-D-Don’t Don’t Stop the Beat.

England’s Fluke seemed for a time like they might join the “Big Four” of the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Crystal Method, and Daft Punk, and indeed their 1997 album Risotto is nearly as good as albums by these groups.  In addition to the aforementioned Wipeout XL track “Atom Bomb”, this album also has the hyper-rhythmic “Absurd”, the swirling, romantic “Kitten Moon”, the pulsing, percolating “Mosh”, and the surging “Squirt”, as well as the ominous seven minute album ender “Goodnight Lover”.  However, other songs, like “Amp”, “Reeferendum”, “Bermuda”, and “Setback” never really move beyond enjoyable and often verge on repetitious. 

Two other English acts, Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx, also had hit songs during this period, Fatboy Slim with the fantastic bombast of “Right Here, Right Now” and the Jaxx with “Where’s Your Head At”.  I also like “Killafornia” by Fatboy Slim and the disco smoothness of “Romeo” and “Just 1 Kiss” by the latter.

With respect to contemporary electronic dance music, one DJ I especially enjoy is David Guetta.  A couple years ago they ended the Grammies featuring performances by Guetta and Deadmau5, and I thought Guetta, Li’l Wayne and Chris Brown’s version of “I Can Only Imagine” blew poor little mousie out of the water.  This song is just fun and upbeat, and for a while was my son’s favorite song (when he was six or seven); I just love how the sweet piano pounding builds the chorus until it blows apart into a pulsing fuzz bass and frantic synth. 
I’ve also tried to explore other prominent current DJs and EDM musicians.  I have developed a fondness for Skrillex, especially the songs “Bangarang” (this is my personal fave for obvious reasons, with its wild screeching synth), “Kyoto”, “Rock n’ Roll (Will Take You To the Mountain) (another favorite of mine), “Kill Everybody”, and “All I ask Of You”.  I also like Nicky Romero’s “Toulouse”, another great strident squacking synth line set over a danceable groove.  Afrojack is another favorite particularly the percolating “Prutataaa” and “Funk With Me”, and the house-influenced “As Your Friend”, which feature Chris Brown on vocals.

Eventually I grew away from solely listening to electronica.  In fact, one of the things that prompted me to move back into rock was the rise of Napster; it allowed me to sample, for free, many songs, artists, and genres that I hadn’t before, plus it allowed me to acquire a ton of old songs I used to like.  Slowly I moved away from electronica, but I never completely lost my love for the songs mentioned here.  I still think electronica invigorated contemporary music in a major way, and helped to mix together genres like hip hop, disco, and rock that hadn’t always been mixed together well in the past. 

I recently re-explored my old electronica songs.  Last winter we had a number of storms and cold snaps here in Colorado, and were forced to spend a lot of time indoors.  My then seven-year-old son and I, along with my wife, would put on a playlist of electronica songs and dance to them to alleviate the boredom and give us some physical activity.  My son developed a fondness for electronica that has continued to this day, though currently his top favorite artist is Eminem.  But his second favorite artist is the Prodigy, especially “Breathe” and most other songs on Fat of the Land.  In fact, he insisted that I make him a Prodigy t-shirt, which I did.  We also watched a performance by the Prodigy from a European mega-concert from a few years ago that was really enjoyable.  It has been fun to re-explore this music with my son and I’m glad he appreciates it as much as I do.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Scream: Some of the Goth and Hard Rock Bands that Played LA's Legendary 80's Club

Patrick Mata of Kommunity FK (left) and Johnny Indovina of Human Drama (right), two unsung heroes of LA goth.

In my last post I discussed the rise of Jane’s Addiction from the point of view of someone who was there almost from the beginning and got to see them live very early on in their career.  As mentioned in that post, Perry Farrell had a band prior to Jane’s Addiction known as Psi Com.   I never saw them live as they broke up before Jane’s Addiction got started in fall of ’85 just when I was arriving up in LA to attend college at UCLA, about 15 months before I first saw Jane’s A live.  But I recently tracked down some of their music; unfortunately none of it is commercially available via iTunes or but their first demos, recorded in March of ‘84 (a collection known in the Jane’s A world as “Worktape 1”) are uploaded to YouTube, as are all of the songs from their self-titled 1985 album.  These paint a very interesting picture of Perry’s pre-Jane’s musical inspirations and influences.  Perry has stated in interviews that during this time he was listening heavily to Joy Division, and there are definitely elements of their music to be found in that of Psi Com, most notably the pulsing bass lines and the introspective, almost morose tone of most of the songs.  The music definitely sounds post-punk with gothic overtones, but to me, Joy Division is less directly an inspiration here than other post-punk bands.  Specifically, the shimmering, down-tuned guitars really remind me of John McGeoch’s work with Siouxsie and the Banshees (such as songs like “Monitor” and “Arabian Knights”) as well as Keith Levine’s on the first P.I.L. album, most notably on songs like “Theme” and “Public Image”. The first song on Worktape 1 is “Hopeful”, which lopes along at a brisk pace and has the catchiest beat of the Psi Com songs I’ve heard.  Perry’s vocals are kind of echoey—in the early days of Jane’s Addiction he also used a lot of vocal effects, especially live—and mostly sung in a lower register.  This song and it’s grinding, high register guitar lines and pounding drums sounds like classic post-punk to me, a natural extension of songs like “Into the Light” by Siouxsie and the Banshees, but with a dash of “Into You Like a Train” by the Psychedelic Furs.  “Hopeful” is by far my favorite Psi Com song.  “Them” is rawer, darker, and slower but retains that sludgy post-punk feel of “Hopeful” while “Psi Com Theme” is more atmospheric; here Joy Division’s influence can be more keenly felt.

Psi Com’s self-titled 1985 mini-album continued in a similar vein.  “Ho Ka Hey” also has that shimmering, McGeoch-like guitar sound and a throbbing bass line, with Perry’s ululating vocals over everything; this has an almost tribal feel to it and a frantic pace that makes it pretty compelling to listen to.   The other thing this evokes for me is “Antonin Artaud” by Bauhaus in its shimmery, grinding wildness. “Human Condition” is more ponderous and its down-scaling guitar line after the chorus reminds me of “New Dawn Fades” by Joy Division.  Perhaps the centerpiece of the album is the surging, lurching “Xiola”, yet another tribute by Perry to his then-lover, the underage trust fund artist Xiola Blue. Perry’s alternately shrieking and howling vocals ride the swells and recessions of the music like a surfer cruising a wave; this is as passionate as he seemed to get with this band.  The final two songs of this album, “City of Gates” and “Winds” are long and turgid and don’t really go anywhere, especially the slow, meandering “Winds”, but show that he clearly was never shy about writing songs that broke the five minute barrier (both songs exceed seven minutes in length).

Overall I’d have to say that I’m not a huge fan of Psi Com; they never seem to break out of the post-punk sonic ghetto, and all of the songs just sound too similar—too shimmery, too minor key.  Nothing really sticks out here, except perhaps “Hopeful”. 

Psi Com were part of a pretty large goth/post-punk scene that thrived in LA in the 80’s, and many of these other bands both influenced and played with both Psi Com and Jane’s Addiction.  Perry Farrell has mentioned (most recently in Brendan Mullen’s oral history of Jane’s Addiction, Whores) that one of the performers who most impressed him with both his look and his sound when he first started getting into the LA music scene was Patrick Mata of the band Kommunity FK.  Mata definitely had a distinctive look, equal parts goth punk shock and New Ro Blitz Kid glamour.  And his voice truly was evocative, not that that is particularly easy to tell from Kommunity FK’s first album, 1983’s The Vision and the Voice, which would be apt if only Mata’s vocals weren’t buried beneath layers of muddy production.  On this earlier work the band hews very closely to the goth punk of progenitors like Bauhaus; songs like the appropriately named “Anti-Pop” and “Bullets” snarl with raw guitar much like “Dark Entries” or “Stigmata Martyr” off Bauhaus’ first album.  “Unknown To You” melds this slashing guitar sound to a meandering bass and ominous vocals in a way that evokes the epileptic post-punk funk of Gang of Four.  Their “theme song”, “Fuck the Kommunity” is an out-and-out punk song, sounding like the emotional hardcore of bands like the Flower Leperds or Dr. Know.  “No Fear” again has a prominent, brooding bass line and sustained synth drone that sets a gloomy tone; Mata’s vocals, though buried in the mix, give one of the best examples from this album at least of how powerful and emotive his voice could be.  But to me, the standout track on this album is the monolithic “We Will Not Fall”, which builds on the somber emotionality of “No Fear” but is an even more effective song because of the catchy, repetitive guitar riff offsetting the throbbing bass; to me this song brings to mind some of the gloomy sludge of of the Stooges’ first album, notably songs like “Ann”, the similarly named “We Will Fall”, and especially “Little Doll” (which is actually one of my favorite Stooges songs).  This song is saved from being merely dirge-y by the propulsive percussion and driving guitar riff, as well as the shared chorus.  The industrial touches remind me of some of the music that was being made in the Bay Area in the early 80’s by acts such as Chrome and Factrix.  I’ll bet this song was a swirling punk-goth miasma live.  Unfortunately the mix on this entire album is just too dense, and arguably their greatest weapon, Mata’s emotive vocals, is buried too deep in the mix to raise this material enough to notice or appreciate.

By their second and final studio album, 1985’s Close One Sad Eye, the production problems had been solved and Mata’s voice is refreshingly forward in the mix.  By this point the band had evolved beyond their goth-punk beginnings toward a lusher, New Romantic new wave synth sound, where the synthesizers are the most prominent sonic element and the guitars have been scaled back and mostly used for effect.  “The Other World” has a staccato rhythm and rumbling bass but starts with a synth flourish before highlighting Mata’s almost drag-queen like vocals, but the song just kind of meanders and never really goes anywhere.  “Something Inside Me Has Died” is a step in a better direction, beginning with a morose bass line before the guitars flash and slash into the song.  Mata here sounds almost eerily like Phil Oakey of Human League, his voice highly dramatic and quavering with emotion.  This song seems perfectly balanced between their punkier beginnings and their New Ro leanings on the rest of this album.

The two best songs on this album are really just pure new wave synth music.  “Trollops” is catchy and has clever lyrics with evocative imagery (“I love your hair it’s black as tires”) and the almost perfect mix of smooth synths and highly processed guitar here reminds me of the stuff Berlin was doing at around this same time.  I always had really extreme feelings about Berlin; I almost uniformly detest their better known songs but love the stuff nobody ever heard or saw on MTV.  For example, I can’t stand the Euro-wannabe song (and video) “Metro”, which seems to be striving for a kind of continental sophistication and ennui that it doesn’t quite attain.  And I consider “Sex” (I’m a . . .)” to be one of the lamest songs of the entire new wave era; Terri Nunn is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and sexy women to emerge from the new wave era (I actually find her more attractive now as a woman over 50 than I did then), but the lame sexual moans and cheesily blatant sexual lyrics and entendres of this song just leave me stone cold.  I vastly prefer songs like the perky, percolating “Masquerade” off their first album as well as the darker (yet sexier to me) songs “Now It’s My Turn”, “Touch”, and “When We Make Love” off their 1984 album Love Life.  I’m also a fan of “Rumor of Love”, where John Crawford takes the lead and Terri provides sweet backing vocals.  My two all-time favorite Berlin songs are the harder, faster, more guitar-driven “Pictures of You”, with Terri’s magnificently triumphant vocals on the chorus, as well as the slower, lusher, super romantic ballad “Fall”, particularly the end where Nunn repeatedly sings “Your star will shine again”.  Love Life is one of those albums I’ve loved since the very moment it first came out and continue to treasure to this day.  It has aged really well, unlike a lot of synth music from that era.

Patrick Mata’s vocals on this album also remind me of another phenomenal singer from the 80’s new wave scene, Alison Moyet.  Moyet was of course the lead singer for Vince Clarke’s post-Depeche Mode band Yaz.  Yaz was quite popular at my high school though to my knowledge they never toured America before Alison went solo just two short years later in 1983.  Moyet went on to have a modestly successful solo career (I like the song “Weak In The Presence of Beauty” off her second album, 1988’s Raindancing).  Years after they’d broken up, around 1987, I roomed for a summer in a frat house at UCLA because it was dirt cheap and my roommate was this guy Paul from England who spent the entire summer working at some film poster factor in Hollywood and partying insanely hard every night; he was the only person I’d ever met who saw Yaz live in concert, although “live” might be something of a misnomer since all the music was preprogrammed by Vince Clarke; Paul knew this because at one point Clarke walked away from his synth and spent part of the concert taking photos of the crowd!  Anyway I was never as huge fan of Yaz’s big club hits like “Don’t Go”, “Situation”, and “Goodbye 70’s” as I was of their more romantic torch songs and ballads; my favorite Yaz songs are “Too Pieces” off their album Upstairs at Eric’s and “Nobody’s Diary” off You And Me Both.  I’m also partial to “Only You”, “In My Room”, “Mr. Blue”, “Softly Over”, and “Ode To Boy”, but it’s the quavering romanticism of Moyet’s  contralto on “Too Pieces” coupled with Clarke’s lush, optimistic synths that really gets me, and Mata’s vocal work, particularly on the songs off Close One Sad Eye come close to this in my opinion.

Anyway, the other song I love by Kommunity FK off Close One Sad Eye is “the Vision and the Voice”.  This song starts with a susurrating synth line yanked straight off “Living on Video” by Trans X before moving into a gloomy, descending bass line that sounds like Scott Alexander’s bass line from the Stooges’ “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog”.  Mata’s vocals on the initial verses are sung in this odd, flat-affect, sing-songy method but this works as an effective counterpoint to the smooth lushness of his voice on the chorus.  The synth flourishes in the place of guitar solos give this song a very new wave-y feel; as my wife recently said, “This sounds like it was playing on the sound system at ‘Tech Noir’ right before Linda Hamilton walked in to use the phone in ‘The Terminator’”, and she’s absolutely right, and it’s why I love this song.  This song is extremely catchy and had it been released in 1982 or 1983 it might have been a hit along the lines of “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, but by 1985 synth-driven new wave was falling more and more swiftly out of favor.  This lack of success probably contributed to the breakup of Kommunity FK in the summer of ’85, supposedly right after a show they played at the O.N. Club with Psi Com; their drummer Matt Chaikin actually drummed for Jane’s Addiction in their first months before Stephen Perkins joined in March of ’86. 

Another band that gigged around with Psi Com in the goth/post-punk community was Screams For Tina.  Their sound leaned much more toward the so-called “darkwave” end of goth/post-punk; more ominous and, well, dark than even typical goth, which could often be kind of lush, romantic and even optimistic.  I can recall seeing ads and fliers for Screams For Tina around LA in the mid-80’s and they seemed to have a decent buzz about them; indeed, according to Wikipedia they were voted as among the top five vote-getters in the “Best New Band” and “Best Underground Band” categories in the LA Weekly’s annual readers’ poll a couple of times in the 80’s.  Unfortunately their recorded output in their heyday is scanty, with just the 1986 EP Stobelight Funeral coming out during the 80’s. Alas, this EP is not available via commercial MP3 sites though someone has put some songs up on YouTube.  “Fool’s Gold” captures their atmospheric, ominous sound, which like Psi Com owes much to Juju-era Siouxsie; unlike Psi Com, however, their sound isn’t as homogeneous in terms of the guitar, and the production is definitely a notch or three higher.  On this song, the ominous, repeated guitar picking actually reminds me of the main guitar line in the Bryan Adams song “Run To You”.  “Nightmare”, also off this same EP, starts with a grinding, feeding back guitar line and heavy percussion that eventually resolves into a lurching rhythm and swirling wall of noise punctuated by occasional slashes of guitar.  “Simple Addictions” almost reminds me of a slowed-down version of Bauhaus’ cover of Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle” only with a down-tuned variant of the guitar from the Clash’s “Police On My Back”.  The vocals here sound really processed too, another thing they seemed to share with Psi Com.

Screams For Tina didn’t release their first full-length album until 1994’s Screams For Tina.  It has more of the grinding buzz of “Dark Entries” by Bauhaus, especially on songs like “Judgment Day” and “In Her House”.    The latter is probably my favorite song by this group; the vocals here bring to my mind some of the “new wave revival” bands of the last 10 years, people like the Editors.  Its driving rhythm sets it apart from some of the other songs, which like Psi Com’s tend to kind of run together for me. 

Savage Republic is another LA post-punk band that focused more on atmospheric soundscapes and near-drone sonics.  Unlike Screams For Tina, Savage Republic was prolific in the studio, and several of their early albums are available on iTunes and elsewhere commercially.  I’m not a huge fan of 1982’s Tragic Figures; this album is too intentionally strident and arty, sounding like a weird cross between the dark post-punk meanderings of Killing Joke, the angular funk of Gang of Four, and the harsh industrial clamor of Einsturzende Neubauten, especially on songs like “Machinery”.  I actually like all three of these bands a lot, but Savage Republic’s take on this same territory just doesn’t strike my fancy.  Songs like “Real Men” remind me of some of the stuff Sonic Youth were doing early in their career, or Kerosene-era Big Black. 

Much more to my liking is their smoother, more polished sound on 1985’s Ceremonial, particularly on instrumentals like “Andalusia”, “1000 Days”, and “Walking Backwards”.  The title song and “Year of Exile” almost sound like the post-rock of bands like Rachel’s and Mogwai.  Their 1988 album Customs never really moved beyond what they accomplished here, and the band broke up soon afterward.

Another band that trod the territory between goth and post-punk was the Abecedarians.  Both the Abecedarians and Jane’s Addiction played regularly at the LA’s goth-metal-alternative club Scream, and both bands were chosen to contribute a song to the now-legendary “Scream Album”, a compilation of songs by bands who frequently played the club, which came out in 1987.  I can distinctly remember when that album came out, because I was both going to the Scream club fairly frequently at that time and because I absolutely loved the song “Rotten Sunday” by the grungy blues/punk/hard rock band the Hangmen, who I saw play at Scream around that time.   The Abecedarian’s song on the Scream compilation, “They Said Tomorrow” is an exemplar of their sound, which was not so much gothic as it was just crisp, tightly played post-punk with a slightly morose edge.  The vocals, by singer Chris Manecke, are particularly good; like many of the bands on this post, they owe a debt to Bowie and Peter Murphy but in this case Manecke is not trying too hard to perfectly replicate the stentorian baritone of these singers but instead uses their influences to enhance his own particular talents.  Sonically, the Abecedarians remind me a little of a less depressed Joy Division or maybe a less stoned Echo and the Bunnymen, as mentioned less goth per se and really more just atmospheric post-punk.  Off their 1987 album Eureka, I particularly like the crisp, driving “Beneath the City of the Hedonistic Bohemians” and the quieter “Misery of Cities” and “The Other Side of the Fence”.  Like Savage Republic, they sometimes trade too heavily in textures and moods, like on the perfectly fine but rather bland “Soil” and “I Glide”.  “Smiling Monarchs” has a big clapping beat and swirling snyths that make me think of Thompson Twins; this would have made a great dance single to play at LA’s underage dance club 321 around the year 1984.  “Benway’s Carnival” is too frenetic; “Switch” sounds too much like a shadow of “Age of Consent” by New Order.  I am developing a liking for this band but so far it has been a taste acquired with some effort, they aren’t super accessible or catchy but, like another band I’ve come to like from that place and time, Orange County’s Psychobud, they do a solid job within the confines of their sound.

Another band featured on the Scream compilation, and one that also played that club a lot obviously, are Francis X and the Bushmen.  Their sound is a crisp, produced arena post-punk with hints of hard rock.  Francis X’s vocals move from deep to keening much like Iggy Pop’s in his 80’s solo work, which is what the band also sounds like to me--I’m thinking of songs like “Power and Freedom” and “Candy” by Ig.  Francis also sounds like late era TSOL to me too when he sings, before they went hard rock, like on their album Change Today.  Their only recorded foray into the studio was the 1986 EP Soul Incest.  “Mirror Church” and “Come With Me” have a polished post-punk sound with a hard rock edge to it. “Harlequin” almost reminds me of Shriekback, with it’s shouted choruses and rangy rhythm.  I like this band but want to like them more given how often I remember seeing them advertised back in the day, especially at the Scream club, but so far they just haven’t clicked for me, their sound is a little too sterile. I’ll bet they were way better live.

A band that Francis X and the Bushmen sort of remind me of, only less gothy of course, is the Sisters of Mercy.  Indeed, if the Scream club had a patron saint band, SoM would definitely be it; their mix of hardcore old-school goth—Andrew Eldritch’s voice literally SOUNDS skinny and pale, he sounds like an even more cadaverous Low-era David Bowie—with driving arena/hard rock that hits pretty much all of the musical talking points of the Scream culture, so perhaps it is not surprising to hear echoes of their sound and style in many of the 80’s LA goth bands.  I recently downloaded a bunch of songs off their 1987 magnum opus Floodland.  I can remember when this album came out; I was a big fan of the song “This Corrosion”, partly because it is simply a great, catchy song, and partly because the video extensively featured new member and gorgeous goth pinup Patricia Morrison, formerly of the seminal LA punk band the Bags (and eventually to become Mrs. Dave Vanian as well as a short-term member of his band the Damned).  The bouncy synths and booming choruses of this song are still amazingly catchy, but I’ve actually come to like some of the other songs on this incredible album even more, including the sleek “Flood II”, the grinding, tortured ‘Emma”, and currently my favorite is the dark, driving masterpiece “Lucretia My Reflection”, a song that surely represents, along with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus, the apotheosis of goth as an artistic statement.  The crisp rhythm, the crypt-y vocals, and the huge guitar riffs bring this song out of the caverns and into the arena in a perfect way.  Eldritch continued to explore this harder edged rock sound on 1990’s Vision Thing, and the title track, “Detonation Boulevard”, and “You Could Be The One” are all magnificent.

Of all the bands playing at clubs like Scream in LA in the mid/late 80’s, I have yet to come across one as interesting as Human Drama.  Human Drama was the brainchild of singer Johnny Indovina.  Indovina’s first band, which he started in New Orleans in the early 80’s, was the Models; a performance video of their song “Fool To Try” is uploaded on YouTube, and their sound is pretty standard new wave rock in the Fleshtones mold and their look is a very dated early 80’s image similar to that of the Romantics.  But the song is catchy and Johnny’s vocals are certainly impressive and hint at better things to come.

Around 1985 Johnny moved to LA and changed the name of his band to Human Drama.  Like Kommunity FK, Savage Republic, Abecedarians, and Francis X and the Bushmen, they quickly became regular performers at Scream (they too are featured on the Scream compilation).  In 1988 they signed a major label record deal with RCA records and recorded and released both an EP and their debut album, Feel, that same year.  The two records are available as a combined album on iTunes and are, to put it simply, staggering.  Human Drama lean more toward the romantic, optimistic end of the goth spectrum, and unlike pretty much every other band mentioned in this post, Indovina’s vocals do not hew tightly to the Bowie/Murphy mold.  Quite the contrary; Johnny’s vocal range is almost staggering, moving from a emotive whisper to a wild falsetto shriek, often within the same song.  At times his voice does evoke a hint of Peter Murphy, especially at quieter moments, but during his more energetic periods he almost reminds me of Meat Loaf, like on his 1993 smash hit “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”, or even British theatrical star Michael Crawford’s work from “The Phantom of the Opera” (like “Music Of The Night”, for example, a song I love because I saw Phantom in LA in the early 90’s).  Musically the band sounds like a cross between the hard rock of Sonic Temple-era Cult and the slick, almost over-produced arena rock of bands like the Outfield (I recently scandalized all of my Facebook friends by admitting that I am a HUGE closet Outfield fan; indeed, I would consider the Outfield to be my most shameful secret love.  But I can’t help it, I’m addicted to their sleek, over polished Journey wannabe songs, and have been ever since “Your Love”.  But I absolutely love “Moving Target”, “All the Love”, “Mystery Man”, “61 Seconds”, “I Don’t Need Her”, “Say It Isn’t So”—probably my second favorite song next to “Your Love”—and Bangin’ On My Heart”.) .

There are definitely times when Human Drama’s arena rock histrionics, and Johnny’s vocals in particular, go catapulting right over the top and become almost satirical.  “Never Never” for example, is just too maudlin lyrically and vocally, too emphatic and overwrought, as is “Through My Eyes”; Johnny just sounds too shriek-y here.  “Nothing I Judge” is fine, but the atheist in me recoils from the chorus “You’re making me, run from Jesus” (yeah, so?) and I’m also not a fan of the quasi-funky but overly processed guitar on this song.  But honestly, these are just a couple of minor low points on what is otherwise an incredible album; usually Johnny’s sense of, for want of a better word, drama, brings his melodic and well-crafted songs right up to the knife edge of emotional resonance.  “Death of an Angel”, for example, starts with a gently picking guitar and some orchestral strings that immediately bring to mind “Edie (Ciao Baby)” by the Cult and builds into a magical chorus by Johnny, particularly at the end of the song when Johnny shares the vocals with a magnificent female singer, who perfectly counter-points Johnny’s chorus with her plaintive vocals.  “I Wish I Could See” starts out with a strange pulsing synth line but bursts out into another huge bombastic chorus straight out of Meat Loaf territory. 

To me the two best songs on this album are “Heaven On Earth” and “Dying In a Moment of Splendor”.  “Heaven” is semi-acoustic, and Johnny does a terrific job of working through his tremendous range without ever going over-the-top; in the chorus he sounds a lot like Patrick Mata, lush and emotional in that perfect, goth-y New-Ro-y way.  This song has tremendous power for such a relatively quiet song.
But “Dying In A Moment of Splendor” is hands-down the best song on this album, and one of the best songs to come out of LA’s music scene in the 80’s.  It certainly starts mellowly enough, semi-acoustic like “Heaven” but building to the most magnificent chorus on an album full of magnificent choruses; here Johnny’s voice veers toward the leather-lunged power of Kevin Dubrow of Quiet Riot (I was always a closet fan of theirs, and particularly loved “Mental Health”).  For the life of me I can’t even conceive of hearing such a soaring, magnificent song/chorus in a grungy nightclub like Scream; I’d give anything to see Human Drama there now!  But it is a little surprising and disappointing that this song never received its proper due and sufficient promotion by the record company; many bands with goth leanings were breaking into the mainstream by the late 80’s when this came out, including the aforementioned Cult, Depeche Mode, the Cure, and Morrissey.  This could and should have been at least a minor hit on KROQ and other “alternative” radio stations.

Indeed, because RCA put little to no promotion into Feel, Johnny requested their release from the label shortly thereafter.   Since then Johnny has continued to release exquisitely romantic, emotional albums on independent labels like LA’s Triple-X Records.  One of my favorite is 1992’s The World Inside; I especially like the jangly, sweet “This Tangled Web”, which reminds me of “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” by the Smiths with a hint of the lush keyboards of Goldfrapp’s “Number 1” mixed in for good measure.  But my second favorite Human Drama song next to “Splendor” is the truly sublime “Fascination and Fear”.  Everything about this song is perfect, from the repeating, trebly guitar to the bongo percussion (particularly at the break) to the sweet synth flourishes to the clavichord coming out of the break, and of course it builds to a chorus of staggeringly under-stated power.  Patrick Mata of Kommunity FK provides backing vocals on the chorus, perfectly blending with Johnny’s own vocals.  It is wonderful to hear these two LA goth luminaries harmonizing together in such perfect sync.  Overall the song is sweet, lush, romantic and beautiful, an almost perfect American counterpoint to “Human” by the Human League.  Such a fantastic song.

Another magnificent song is “Lost” off 1999’s Solemn Sun Setting, with its martial drumbeat and gently fuzzed out, humming guitar, the soft string accompaniment, and Johnny’s gentle, sweet vocal.  My only problem with this song, and much of the rest of Johnny’s work throughout the rest of the 90’s and into the 21st century, is that he kept getting farther and farther from the power and drama of his earlier work.  I love this song, but I would absolutely adore it if Johnny just cut loose on it, and belted the final chorus out in his legendarily powerful falsetto.  It stays too understated for my tastes, and indeed most of Johnny’s post-Feel work shied away from the arena bombast that characterized his first album, and that’s a shame. 

Songs like “Lost” remind me of Peter Murphy’s post-Bauhaus solo work.  Like most alternative rock fans, I loved his hit “Cuts You Up” off his third solo effort, 1989’s Deep, especially his rich, textured baritone on the chorus, but only in doing some research for this post did I go back and listen to his solo albums in more detail and discover how many incredible songs he has recorded over the past 25 years.  From that same album I love the song “Crystal Wrists”, with its pulsing synth intro and the swirling guitars-and-keyboards wall of sound punctuated by Murphy’s distinctively deep and resonant vocals.  I also really love the simple torch song “My Last Two Weeks” and its dramatic piano flourishes, and the delicate, shimmery “Indigo Eyes” off his second solo album, 1988’s Love Hysteria. 

Murphy waited three years before recording his follow-up to Deep, spending that time touring on the strength of “Cuts You Up”.  In 1992 he released Holy Smoke, which contained another song that became a modest modern rock hit, “The Sweetest Drop”, but my favorite cut off this album is the aptly named “Hit Song”, which, while unabashedly pop in nature, is one of the best showcases for Murphy’s incredible vocal range that he ever recorded.  For me it is impossible to listen to this song and not start belting out the big quavery chorus with Peter, this is just such a catchy, singable pop song.

1995’s Cascade represents a high water mark in Murphy’s post-Bauhaus work.  The album was bristling with edgy but catchy songs that captured Murphy’s fractured lyrical bent and his magnificent voice at their very best.  From the synth-heavy and sweetly melodic “Gliding Like a Whale” to the hard-edged guitar sound of “Wild Birds Flock To Me”, the songwriting here is crisp and stellar.  The arty tones of Murphy’s prior work have been ramped down, as have the more nakedly pop aspects of his things like “Hit Song” in favor for a solid alternative rock ambiance that fits Murphy’s beautiful voice perfectly.  This album meets, and often exceeds, even his work with Bauhaus, which despite their lionization by goth rockers because of their position as the godfathers of the entire goth movement, was often too harsh or purposely avant garde to be really enjoyable to listen to.  “The Scarlet Thing In You” is another standout track, the mix of electric and acoustic guitar and mid-tempo rhythm melding to create a pleasantly rollicking song anchored as always by Murphy’s distinctive vocals.  But the standout track here, and easily one of the top songs of Murphy’s long solo career, is “I’ll Fall With Your Knife”, which starts with a percolating synth line but is quickly punctuated by beautiful raw stabs of guitar that almost remind me of “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Murphy’s vocals are exquisite and the song eventually picks up some drive with a crisp drumbeat midway through.  This song is just catchy and irresistible.

Murphy’s two subsequent albums, 2002’s Dust and 2004’s Unshattered, did not resonate so well with me. Dust is a side exploration into Eastern and ambient sounds that is too trip-hop, too mellow for my tastes.  2004’s Unshattered veered back into treacly pop and aside from the surging, almost funky “Idle Flow”, none of the songs really reach out and grab me.  But in 2011 Murphy released the album Ninth which is a return to the delicate balance between pop, art, and alterna-rock represented by Cascade.  I like the propulsive rhythm and chugging guitar of “The Prince & Old Lady Shade”, which has more bite than almost any Murphy song since “Stigmata Martyr”.  “Memory Go” also has a tougher edge to it than most of Murphy’s post-Bauhaus solo work.  “I Spit Roses” is more delicate, while my favorite song off this album, “Seesaw Sway” combines the mellower aspects of “Roses” in its verse portions with the harder rock edges of “Memory Go” on the chorus.   I like this song and find the chorus to be particularly catchy, it reminds me a lot of the propulsive, soaringly optimistic singles U2 has released over the past 20 years or so, stuff like “Zoo Station”, “Beautiful Day” and “Vertigo”.

Getting back to 80’s LA post-punk, there is one other band worth discussing here that shares links with Jane’s Addiction, and that’s Lions & Ghosts.  Like Jane’s Addiction, Lions & Ghosts were regular performers at Scream, but they also shared a closer connection:  vocalist Rick Parker actually lived at the legendary Wilton House, the Hollywood house that Perry Farrell, Casey Nicoli, Eric Avery, Jane Bainter (the inspiration for “Jane Says”) and Carla Bozulich (who would go on to form both the techno rock band Ethyl Meatplow and the countrified Geraldine Fibbers) all shared.  Legend has it that Perry broke into Rick’s room and started reading and making fun of some of his lyrics until he and Parker got in a fistfight, then Parker moved out shortly thereafter.

If you were to pick one band out of the stew of bands gigging throughout LA during the mid/late 80’s that would be the best bet to make it big, Lions & Ghosts would almost assuredly be that band.  Unlike the other bands on this list, they weren’t even peripherally associated with LA’s goth scene but were instead a straight-ahead, if somewhat earnest college rock/bar band in the vein of the Replacements or the Alarm, with a bit of the jangle-pop sheen of REM and psychedelia-lite of the Church tossed on top for good measure.  However, they also remind me of two other bands from about that same time that also share links with Jane’s Addiction.  One of them is Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers.  At about the same time that Jane’s Addiction was creating a buzz and initiating a bidding war with record companies on the west coast, Tommy Conwell’s hard-edged bar rock was packing ‘em in in clubs in the bars around Philly and eventually he and his band got signed to Columbia Records at about the same time Jane’s Addiction got signed to rival Warner’s.  Conwell’s first album, Rumble, was a blast of pure bar band blues and hard rock and spawned a couple of modestly successful singles, the fantastic grinding rocker “I’m Not Your Man” (a song that earned valid comparisons to the best of the Replacements) and the earnest, Jules Shear-penned ballad “If We Never Meet Again”.  I remember all of this for two reasons: first, there was a huge article on the respective bidding wars over both Jane’s A and Tommy Conwell at the time in Rolling Stone magazine that I read (and subsequently kept), and second, around this time my then-girlfriend, future wife went to some party at some generic dance club/bar and they gave out promotional copies of Conwell’s album for free and my girlfriend hated it and promptly gave it to me.  In addition to the two singles, I also liked “Half A Heart” and “Love’s On Fire” but the rest of the album didn’t break out of its bar band mold enough to move the needle for me.

The other band Lions & Ghosts reminds me of is Divine Weeks, another LA band that gigged around in the 80’s.  Originally called the Need and more of a powerpop band, Divine Weeks shifted their sound toward more of a college alternative sound about midway between REM and the Replacements. I was very familiar with Divine Weeks because most of its members, including leader Bill See, went to UCLA, although they were a couple years older than me.  However, Bill’s then-girlfriend, and manager of Divine Weeks, Mary, worked at the UCLA college radio station KLA at the same time I did circa ‘86’-’89 and I can distinctly recall seeing her in the offices of KLA many times (I believe at the time she had bright red dyed hair and a nose ring but I could be wrong), and I can also remember her setting up a free concert by them on the A-Level of Ackerman Union sometime around ’88 or ’89.  A couple years ago See published 33 Days, a memoir of exactly this period and his band’s first real tour, a self-promoted swing up into the Pacific Northwest then east through Canada before swinging around in a big loop through the Southwest.  I greatly enjoyed reading this; in the summer of ’88 I was living up in LA, working part-time on UCLA campus and spending most of the rest of the time laying out at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center and working out at the on-campus gym, so for me that also was a summer of freedom and exploration, and reading Bill’s enjoyable account of his band’s trip was extremely pleasant for me given his band’s close connection to institutions (LA, UCLA, KLA) that were close to me as well.  Toward the end of the book Bill claims that Eric Avery and Dave Navarro contacted him shortly around this time to ask if he’d be interested in joining Jane’s Addiction; at the time, lead singer Perry Farrell was alienating the other band members by insisting on a greater share of the writing credits and supposedly Rick Rubin had offered to sign the rest of the band with any other singer fronting them.  See passed up the opportunity in order to remain with his own band, which I respect a lot.

Anyway, Lions & Ghosts had a tremendous buzz around LA from about 1985 or ’86 until the end of the decade, gigging around with bands as disparate as Jane’s Addiction, Faster Pussycat, the Unforgiven, and Guns n’ Roses.  In late 1986 they signed with EMI and entered the studio to record their first album, 1987’s Velvet Kiss, Lick of the Lime.  The album hits most if not all of the touch points of mid 80’s music:  big choruses, jangly Paisley Underground guitars, occasional surging hard rock guitar riffs, a raspy voiced singer, in a competent if not particularly memorable way.  Leadoff song “Passion” is mid-tempo and melodic, and the “Live by passion, die by passion” chorus has a sing-songy aspect that actually reminds me of “She Don’t Know Me” by Bon Jovi.  “Mary Goes Round” was a modest college radio hit, and has more punch to it, with a driving bass and backbeat, slashing guitars and a catchy chorus; it almost reminds me of a slightly less psychedelic “Reptile” by the Church, but with more of the bite of “Lay It Down Clown” by the Replacements in the guitar solo.  “Love and Kisses from the Gutter” almost reminds me of “Alex Chilton” by the ‘mats, it’s got that kind of shiny driving feel.  “When the Moon is Full” starts with some lush strings right out of Electric Light Orchestra before a guitar riff straight out of Power Station’s remake of “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex kicks in; the slashing guitar continues to counter-point the sweet strings throughout the song in a very effective way.  This is probably my favorite song off this first album by Lions & Ghosts.  “Wilton House” is Rick Parker’s nostalgic look back at his time spent in this fertile abode, which launched so many great bands; this is a tight, effective ballad that evokes “Here Comes a Regular” by the Replacements to me.  Album closer “One Theme” starts with some backward tape looping before easing into a shimmery guitar piece that brings to mind the work of Rain Parade; Parker’s vocal work here is reminiscent of that of Bono’s to me, but this song lacks the fire or catchiness of most of the other songs on this album, except for the big shiny “Sha na na, na na na, na na na nah-na na” choruses at the end that reminds me of  “Rain in the Summertime” by the Alarm. 

Aside from some college radio interest, Velvet Kiss didn’t really go anywhere, and in 1989 Lions & Ghosts released their second album, Wild Garden.  The title song is another crisp, catchy blast of melodic college alterna-rock that is one of their best songs.  The band really captured the feel of late 80’s Replacements, songs like “I.O.U.” and again “Alex Chilton” off the ‘mat’s 1987 album Please To Meet Me.  “Arson in Toyland”, however, just kind of lurches along and never really catches fire for me; its not a bad song, but it just doesn’t have much fire in it, unlike the next song, “Five and Dime”, which lopes along nicely.  “Farewell in Hell” and “Too Shy” are two other standouts, harnessing the energy and fire of the band effectively.  “Flowers of Evil” and “Be Yourself” are a little too introspective for me, but “American Ghost” has a wild rave-up sound close to Tommy Conwell’s, with some good harmonica to boot.  “Capture” almost sounds to me like the stuff the Gin Blossoms would take into the top echelons of the charts in the early 90’s, or perhaps “She Don’t Know” by the Bolshoi (I saw that band for free on the A-Level at UCLA around this time too).   “Hourglass” is rootsier and acoustic before cranking it up mid-song. 

I’m not sure why Lions & Ghosts never made it bigger; they had a sound tailor-made to appeal to several broad musical constituencies, with elements of hard rock, college rock, Paisley Underground pop, and so forth.  For whatever reason they weren’t ever able to break through outside of a couple of modest college radio hits and broke up soon after.  Guitarist Michael Lockwood arguably went on to the biggest success of any LA 80’s musician, marrying the daughter of the King himself, Lisa Presley in 2006 after playing in her band for a few years. 

Bill See and Divine Weeks never made it much past the early 90’s either, though Bill has continued to perform and to write since then.  I think that Divine Weeks had two strikes against them that precluded their chance at success:  first, they literally WERE college students, so that probably caused some in the music biz to consider them less authentic or street-cred than some of the grungier elements in the LA 80’s music scene, who literally lived on the streets (in his memoir, Duff McKagen of Guns n’ Roses recounts how the band lived in like a storage unit right off Hollywood Blvd. before signing with Geffen).  Second, the inability of Lions & Ghosts to break out of the collegiate rock ghetto probably caused other labels to be gun shy about making the same poor investment themselves.

Patrick Mata continues to tour and release music and has become something of an underground goth icon, appearing frequently in goth-centered magazines. 

Johnny Indovina has continued to perform into the 2000’s, first as a member of his first post-Human Drama band, Sound of the Blue Heart, and then as a solo artist.  His work, particularly with Human Drama, continues to retain a fiercely loyal cult following, and is particularly big in Mexico.